In Its Race to Fight Covid19, Is India Forgetting Its TB Problem?
“As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the world, I and others working to fight TB have growing anxiety about what this pandemic will do to a much older infectious killer – tuberculosis (TB),” wrote Dr. Madhukar Pai, director at the McGill Internal Tuberculosis Centre, for Forbes.
The media has showered Covid19 with public attention which can seem disproportionate compared to other health risks such as tuberculosis (TB), a fight India has been trying to win for centuries.
Health experts suspect Covid19’s novelty and uncertainty play a role in holding people’s attention captive. We still don’t know how deadly this virus is, there’s no treatment for it yet, making it far more confusing and anxiety-producing. Psychologists also say we tend to respond more significantly to immediate threats, like Covid19, as compared to long-term ones, like the continuous threat of TB.
As compared to Covid19, TB, an infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs, can cause more deaths.
Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, around 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018. TB kills more people than any other infectious disease; the WHO also said approximately 10 million people are infected with tuberculosis every year and over 4,000 people die of tuberculosis every day.
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India has a significant tuberculosis burden: 27% of the world’s cases. For the past few years, the number of people dying of TB has remained relatively stable in India, at above 4 lakh annually, according to WHO’s data.
Covid19 has so far killed 150,000 people around the world since the first death was reported in Wuhan in January 2020. Currently, India has 15,000+ active Covid19 cases since the first case was reported in January 2020, and 640 deaths since the first casualty was reported in March 2020.
As Covid19 numbers rise steadily, it becomes even more important that TB patients be cared for, given the coronavirus represents a significant danger to their already weak lungs. But it also means we cannot ignore an already existing danger.
At present, only 74% of TB patients in India are able to get treatment, The Wire reported. And without extensive tracking to ensure patients continue their months-long treatment, India’s TB burden is only going to rise.
Another problem that may contribute to the rising numbers is, unlike the nationwide lockdown policy the Covid19 disease has demanded, India doesn’t have a quarantine policy for TB. This means while Covid19 will see a decrease in its incidence at some point, India may never be able to put an end to TB if patients move around in the community or travel freely, writes Jay Desai, assistant professor, University of Southern California and a pediatrician who has treated hundreds of TB patients in India, for The Conversation.
Focusing so singularly on Covid19 can hamper the little progress we have made on TB. As with Covid19, the government must ensure we strategically track and treat TB, with infection control, diagnosis, contact tracing. But along with these steps, we also need to ensure that TB gets a fair share of the spotlight and attention from the media, lest we be faced with a bigger problem when the pandemic ends.