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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  • Zamindar

    Mostly immigrants and HIV & AIDS positives. No worry for the healthy and well fed with good immune systems.

  • Suresh Aadi Sharma


  • Annabel Kanabus

    A good immune system won’t necessarily save you from getting TB if you come into contact with someone with TB. And we live in a global community, and wherever you live it is not just immigrants who have TB.

  • Chris Mastry

    This country was free from TB until the onslaught of immigrants.

  • Alastair_93

    The U.K. was never free from TB.

  • Chris Mastry

    It was all but wiped out in the 70s, but the onslaught of immigration made the disease come back with vengeance.

  • Alastair_93

    It was never wiped out in the 1970s.

  • Chris Mastry

    Whatever, I’m not arguing, all I know is it has made a massive comeback since the doors were opened.

  • Alastair_93

    It’s been increasing since the 1970s, sure. But it was never wiped out. The U.K. was never “free” from TB in recent history.

    TB has been around since the Neolithic era. That is before most ancient empires. It goes up and it goes down — for a variety of reasons. Migration undoubtedly has an effect: but it doesn’t quite explain data from prisons, etc., where caucasian prisoners have higher incidence, which means other factors such as close-quarter living and antibiotic resistance are at play.

    Whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella are making a come-back too. Sometimes these are locally pocketed into Middle Class eras. This isn’t because of immigration, then, but vaccination rates.

    In short: lots of reasons, not just immigration. Things in epidemiology are never so simple.

  • Phil Rendis

    Rather misleading title, since it’s the ~16th biggest global killer – 2nd biggest pathogen killer as you say in opening sentence, though.

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