World Tuberculosis Day: Amid Coronavirus Fears, a Reminder of the Killer Respiratory Disease We Still Haven’t Defeated

Health

World Tuberculosis Day: Amid Coronavirus Fears, a Reminder of the Killer Respiratory Disease We Still Haven’t Defeated

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Even as headlines about the spread of coronavirus continue to alarm us into staying indoors, today’s date serves as a reminder of another respiratory illness our country has been grappling with for years. One that leads to several thousand deaths per day.

Every year, March 24 is observed as World Tuberculosis Day, an attempt to raise public awareness about this infamous infection which, much like coronavirus, has the potential to be deadly – but unlike coronavirus right now, is treatable.

Still, it’s more important than ever to keep the TB conversation going. Because as a professor of Global Health at Harvard medical school puts it, “every TB statistic is grim.”

There have been fears that these millions of tuberculosis patients will be greatly affected by the sudden appearance of Covid-19, as well.

“We are home to 1 in 4 of the world’s TB patients, over 2.5 million Indians are infected and, in 2018, over 4,00,000 Indians died of the disease. To put this in stark perspective, more people died of TB in India last week than the entire global death toll of COVID-19 to date,” he states in his editorial in the The Indian Express, titled “A Tale of Two Bugs”

Meanwhile, there have been fears that these millions of tuberculosis patients will be greatly affected by the sudden appearance of Covid-19, as well. As reported by Forbes, while the rest of the world sharpens its gaze on the coronavirus, “TB services” will be one of the biggest casualties.

“We have so many untested TB patients. We, of course, have a lot of untested COVID-19 patients. This will blow up in time, and when it does — the health system will reallocate resources to COVID-19. TB will take a bad hit,” the article quotes Saurabh Rane, a TB survivor and activist as saying.


One of the reasons that TB is taking a back seat to coronavirus, The Indian Express editorial points out, is the difference between who the two illnesses affect:

“… it is because those who suffer from TB are not likely to be boarding international flights or passing through swanky airports to attend conferences. It is because TB infects people in slower tides, slow enough for industries to replace the sick with healthier recruits without endangering the bottom line. It is because TB does not threaten the turbines that keep the global economy throbbing. It is because TB no longer poses a threat to rich and powerful countries.”

A Scroll.in article agrees with this premise and takes it a step further, arguing that “the greatest impacts on the fight against tuberculosis, historically, do not involve medicines at all”. “Housing and sanitation… which may affect a person’s chances of acquiring tuberculosis, also increase the severity of disease if that person is chronically battling other environmental assaults, such as repeated bouts of diarrhea, intestinal worms and dust inhalation,” the article says, pointing out to issues our country has been facing for years, especially among the economically weaker sections.

Which brings us to another common cause of death in the country — the most common cause among children under the age of five, actually — malnutrition. A Livemint report based on a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research, in fact, claims that malnutrition — even in 2017 — continues to “account for 68% of deaths in children of the age group”, a staggering statistic, when compared to the Covid-19 numbers doing the rounds.

So even as the new kid on the block, coronavirus, grabs all the headlines, maybe we needed March 24 to remind us that there are several health issues that need to be addressed in our country. Several of which are equally, if not more, severe, and could do with some timely intervention.

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