LONDON: The global lockdown caused by COVID-19 risks a devastating surge in tuberculosis cases, with nearly 1.4 million additional deaths from the world’s biggest infectious killer by 2025, new research showed.
TB, a bacterial infection that normally attacks patients’ lungs, is largely treatable but still infects an estimated 10 million people every year. In 2018, it killed around 1.5 million people, according to the World Health Organisation, including more than 200,000 children.
Since effective medication exists, the world’s TB response is centred on testing and treating as many patients as possible. As COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments to place populations on lockdown, new disease models showed that social distancing could lead to a disastrous rebound in TB infection, the effects of which are set to persist for years.
This is because social distancing will make it impossible for health care workers to test vulnerable populations and for patients to access ongoing treatments.
“In spite of having drugs and treatment. Ee are not yet close to ending it and TB remains the biggest infectious disease killer,” said Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership. “COVID has hit us very hard. The more people we have not diagnosed and treated the more problems we will have in the coming years.”
Models developed in partnership with epidemiologists at Imperial College London used TB response data from three high-incidence countries namely India, Kenya and Ukraine.
They showed that a two-month global lockdown and a rapid recovery in response programmes could lead to more than 1.8 additional TB infections globally over the next five years, and a predicted 340,000 deaths.
If countries fail to quickly reimplement their testing and treatment, the models showed things would get much worse. For example, a three-month lockdown followed by a 10-month recovery period could lead to an additional six million infections and 1.4 million TB deaths by 2025.
The research did not look at the link between TB, an acute lung infection that leaves even survivors’ lungs compromised, and COVID-19, a viral infection that often leads to lung problems.
Cheri Vincent, head of TB division at USAID, said several studies were looking into how TB puts an individual at a higher risk of getting sick with COVID-19 which may lead to a dire situation.
Deputy executive director of Stop TB Partnership Suvunand Sahu said there was significant concern over the millions of people living with the infection as COVID-19 spreads.
“We know that TB does create damage in the lungs, so when your lung capacity is limited adverse outcomes of COVID would naturally be expected to be higher,” he said.