This week, many members of the TB Europe Coalition (TBEC) are attending the 16th Wolfheze Workshops in The Hague, the Netherlands. The workshops, jointly hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), KNCV Tuberculosis Foundation and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), aim is to strengthen tuberculosis (TB) control in the WHO European Region.

What are the Wolfheze Workshops and who is involved?

The workshops provide a platform for national TB programme managers, health authorities, laboratory experts, national TB surveillance correspondents, civil society organisations and other partners to discuss past achievements and future challenges. As all these groups come together under one roof, the workshops really provide an invaluable opportunity for sharing experiences, discussing progress and planning for the development of Region specific methods for fighting TB based on a consensus-building approach.

TB remains a critical issue worldwide and the WHO European Region where, every hour, there are 49 new TB cases and 7 deaths, is no exception. The problem is particularly acute when you take into account multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB). An estimated 76,000 MDR-TB cases occured in the WHO European Region in 2011accounting for nearly 25 percent of cases worldwide.

These shocking figures illustrate why it is so important so many individuals and organisations from across the WHO European Region join together and why, more specifically, the workshops remain just as important (if not more) as they did when they first began in 1990 in response to the growing threat of TB.

This year at the Workshops

At the workshops this year the programme will focus on progress made in the fight against TB since:

  • the  launch of the Berlin Declaration in 2007;
  • the launch, in 2008, of the ECDC Framework Action Plan to Fight Tuberculosis in the EU;
  • and the launch of the Consolidated Action Plan to Prevent and Combat multidrug- and extensively drug-resistant TB (M/XDR-TB) in WHO European Region in 2011.

Significantly, this year there has been a great increase in the involvement and participation of civil society organisations (CSOs). We often mention how important CSOs are in the fight against TB given their close work with affected communities and due to their ability to be great drivers of change in society, so this is particularly exciting news not only for TBEC but for everyone involved in trying to find how best to address the TB epidemic.

First day of the Wolfheze Workshops

There were a great deal of engaging presentations and discussions on the role and importance of a collaborative approach to advocacy and CSOs throughout the day on Wednesday.

Masoud Dara, Tuberculosis WHO Europe, gave a follow-up to the WHO MDR-TB Action Plan in a presentation which also noted: that the European region has the lowest TB treatment success rates worldwide while other regions are seeing improvements; that 23 out of the 53 countries in Europe have reported drug stock outs and that, except in a very few countries, there is a serious lack of CSO involvement in TB control.

Perhaps the most engaging part of the morning session came when the conference heard from Jonathan Stillo, Romania, and Simon Logan, UK, respectively. Jonathan raised the fact that TB does remain a considerable problem in Romania. Shockingly, 530 cases of MDR-TB are diagnosed each year in the country and many wouldn’t receive the treatment needed to survive. Despite this news, Jonathan did have hope for the near future – ultimately political commitment has started to change the trajectory of the disease in Romania, and he is in no doubt that this was achieved through strong advocacy work.

The second advocacy presentation came from Simon Logan, APPG TB (UK), who shared his experience  on how best to leverage concrete political commitment. While it was made clear that there is no simple solution to achieving this, Simon did make it clear that it through effective partnership we could being to make a real difference. By working closely with NGOs, academics, civil servants, public health professionals and others over the past year, the APPG on TB has produced a comprehensive report on drug-resistant TB, has secured a number of debates in parliament and featured prominently in national media. All of this makes a real difference in generating political commitment, and was achieved through partnerships that have created a powerful voice that cannot be ignored.

In the afternoon, TBEC was tasked with the organisation of a Working Group on advocacy and political commitment, chaired by Patrick Bertrand from Global Health Advocates France, with participants from CSOs, National TB Programme Managers and also from international organisations with a good geographical balance, the session was particularly fruitful. During it we were able to identify the main challenges to advocacy in the region, what action could be taken to remedy these challenges and the tools/resources needed. Everyone agreed how useful it was to do this in a room with organisations and individuals ranging from the UK to Kazakhstan.