World Tuberculosis Day 2013: The second biggest global killer

Freddie Nathan
tb 300x191 World Tuberculosis Day 2013: The second biggest global killer

Microsoft co-founder turned global philanthropist Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum back in January this year promoting the Global Fund against HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria campaign (Getty Images)

Ask most people what the second biggest global pathogen killer is after HIV/AIDS and few will know. The answer is tuberculosis. Nine million people a year contract the airborne bug while a further 1.4 million die from it. Meanwhile, one quarter of HIV/AIDS fatalities actually die from TB.

Those statistics make for chastening reading which is why today, World Tuberculosis Day, is so important in tackling the disease head on. March 24 is not just any date picked out of thin air. It was on this day back in 1882 that German scientist Robert Koch announced that he had found the cause of the illness TB bacillus. At the time of the discovery, it was raging through the western world causing the death of one out of every seven people. Koch’s discovery paved the way for diagnosis and cure, making this particular Sunday so auspicious.

In 1982, a century after Koch’s discovery, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (IUATLD) proposed that March 24 should officially be known as World TB Day. In 1996 the World Health Organization (WHO) became involved and the impact of World TB Day increased immeasurably, however there is still so much work to be done.

A series of events, which started earlier this week, are taking place across the globe, aiming to build public awareness of the risks of tuberculosis to so many. Worldwide awareness of HIV/AIDS took off in the 1980s due to its permeation into the western world. However, TB is prevalent in marginalised communities, often in deeply rural areas, who do not have a voice. This makes an awareness day so vital.

Organisers are keen to challenge the world to do more about TB, the theme for the second year in a row is “Stop TB in my lifetime.” Leading organisations and charities are calling for zero TB deaths, as the disease is so effectively curable if access to treatment is facilitated. The disease mainly impacts the third world, with Asia in particular China and India, having the most cases. However, it is Africa where the death toll is highest.

One of the Millennium Development Goals set out by the UN was to reduce the number of people contracting TB. This goal is on track however, according to Sam Nuttall of the Stop TB Partnership, an umbrella organisation fighting the disease and organiser of World TB Day, a separate target set to reduce the death rate in Africa by half in time for 2015 is not going to be met. This is due to the huge number of people in poor health who become more susceptible to the illness (hence the link with HIV/AIDS), as well as cramped living conditions and limited access to treatment.

One of the major challenges is trying to alleviate the devastating effect TB has the third world. However, Nuttall told me that alarmingly, cases of the disease in the UK, especially in London has risen by 8 per cent in the last year. The BCG vaccine is available to every child in the UK. Yet in many parts of the globe, it is still severely lacking. It acts as a stark reminder that it is on our doorstep as much as it is in far-flung parts of the world.

Perhaps the most alarming feature of the ever-evolving bug is the emergence of drug-resistant TB. While it has only been found in a small proportion of overall cases, it acts as a grave threat to worldwide treatment and control, and demonstrates the its continued prevalence in the modern world.

Therefore to understand what tuberculosis is, how it is spread and how people can be protected is so vital in the continued battle to rid the world of it. It strikes me that despite the best efforts of everyone involved, there is so much to be done and partaking in World TB today is the perfect place to start.

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  • Kay Franklin

    My husband had TB, contracted in hospital following a kidney transplant. He has been left with a nearly useless right arm and constant pain. Yet in our area and many others the BCG vaccination is no longer offered to children.

  • True_Belle

    If people stopped gobbing and spitting everywhere, that would make a big difference!

  • PurbeckPashmina

    Not if TB carriers continue to sneeze and cough unimpeded by handkerchieves etc.

  • ramalingamvenkatraju

    the real medice only cures, simpoty words ,seems to cure, but not and never,

  • Paddyman

    Surely the biggest pathogen-induced killer disease must be malaria rather than HIV? Or does the malaria parasite not qualify as a pathogen?

  • Mae Smythe

    It’s not misleading. The top four worldwide causes of death are, dumbed down, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, and pneumonia: That is, diseases frequently of the old and weak. And diseases that, outside of lifestyle and occupational changes, we need to do a lot more research on.

    Next is diarrhea-causing illnesses. Mostly you need sanitation and then affordable treatments for that, and people are working on it . Next is AIDS, and we’re working on that. Next is cancers of the lungs and stuff attached to the lungs, and if we just wouldn’t smoke and would deal with air pollution and occupational hazards we could reduce that (though it’s never going away entirely).

    After that is tuberculosis. It’s well-understood. It’s treatable. But it’s not a sexy disease, so other than Bill Gates, not a lot of governments or charities seem to be doing a lot about it.

    And we need to strike at TB now, because people not completing the long antibiotic regimens required to eliminate TB is leading to resistant strains of TB. Do we want to go back a hundred years in terms of young people suffering expensive, agonizing lingering deaths from TB? No way. So we hammer on it now.

  • Phil Rendis

    Yes, I agree with you that TB is incredibly important, but the title is still misleading – as you yourself say, it isn’t the 2nd biggest global killer!

    I’m not saying it isn’t important, I’m just saying that the title is factually wrong!

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