Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) released their seventeenth global report on tuberculosis, providing a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of the TB epidemic and progress in implementing and financing TB prevention, care and control. 

Cover of WHO Global Tuberculosis Report 2012

Cover of WHO Global Tuberculosis Report 2012

Positive steps have been made in tackling TB globally. Findings from the report indicate that progress has and is being made in a number of areas. It notes: access to TB care has expanded substantially since the mid-1990s; progress towards global targets for reductions in TB cases and deaths continues; there has been further progress in implementing collaborative TB/HIV activities; innovations in diagnostics are being implemented, and that the development of new drugs and new vaccines is also progressing.

This progress is, of course, welcome news. However, TB remains a major global health problem, ranking only second to HIV/AIDS as the leading cause of death from an infectious disease. Latest estimates show that there were almost 9 million new TB cases in 2011 and 1.4 million TB deaths. As the report notes, this is despite the availability of treatment that will cure most cases of TB.

Worryingly, progress in responding to multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) remains slow. On a purely European outlook, this worry is exacerbated by the fact that the reports makes note of the fact that the highest proportions of TB patients with MDR-TB are in eastern Europe and central Asia. Alarmingly, in several countries throughout the region 9-32 percent of new cases have MDR-TB and more than 50 percent of previously treated cases have MDR-TB.

It is clear that eastern European and central Asian (EECA) countries remain hot spots for MDR-TB. Importantly, the longer that there remains political inaction from European leaders  on the issue, the worse that drug-resistant strains, including extensively drug-resistant TB, will get and the more lives that will be lost.

In order to halt the growing rates throughout the EECA region, it is critical that the leadership of the EU and national governments do more and commit to scaling up their response.  A statement from the Executive Secretary of the Stop TB Partnership in response to the WHO report asserts that:

Europe, along with Africa, is the only region that is not on track to reach the MDG-related target of halving the TB death rate by 2015, compared to 1990.

We need to ensure that the EU does all it can in responding to TB and, particularly, drug-resistant strains. There are various ways that this can be achieved. Firstly, we need to generate the political will to enact change with regards to TB by raising awareness  of the standards of TB treatment within our own borders. The fact that there are TB patients in Romania having to purchase their  own medication for TB online from India is both as shocking as it is unacceptable. Working towards improved access to medications and enhanced laboratory networks throughout eastern Europe is crucial.

As well as working towards gaining proper and effective treatment for TB, we must also ensure that there is greater commitment to spending on research and development into poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs). It is vital that there is ongoing R&D into not only more effective diagnosis tools, but also into vaccines that represent a longer-term and more cost-effective solution for addressing TB.

European leaders have shown in the past the momentous strides that can be taken when working together on issues such as these and now is not the time to sit back. As we have previously argued, there must be a commensurate increase in EU resources dedicated to R&D for PRNDs in the next EU research framework programme Horizon 2020. Action must also be taken to further support civil society organisations and organisations such as The Global Fund in order to ensure that there is enhanced diagnostics and increased access to treatment.

As the Stop TB Partnership has stated in its statement on the report:

Collectively, together with advocates, civil society and affected people, we must impress on governments and donors the need to act on this urgently in the next three years.

You can read the full WHO 2012 report on tuberculosis here.