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New data shows ‘global impact of COVID-19 on TB epidemic is worse than expected’

Covid-19 TB deaths
Written by Amy Green

Over a million additional cases of tuberculosis (TB) went undiagnosed and untreated in the last year due to the impact of COVID-19-related lockdowns, significantly setting back the global effort to end TB by a massive 12 years, according to new data.

This is according to the Stop TB Partnership who addressed the media on Thursday ahead of World TB Day on 24 March.

“We were able to get figures from every single one of the 23 high-burden TB countries for 2020 and there was a dramatic drop in people diagnosed and treated for TB,” said Dr Lucica Ditiu, who heads up the Stop TB Partnership.

South Africa ranks in the top 10 highest TB burden countries.

Speaking to Health-e News, she said that the average drop in diagnoses and testing was a significant 33%, but ranged from 16% to up to as much as 48% in some countries.

People are dying and ‘for me that is terrifying’

“So for us this is a huge setback; on a personal human level these people are sick and staying somewhere in a house in a lockdown infecting family members with TB. People are dying and suffering and for me that is terrifying,” said Ditiu.

In South Africa, she said, “the COVID-19 disruptions led to a 40% reduction in TB notifications between March and September 2020”.

The disruptions to TB programmes were in “big part due to COVID-19 restrictions which led to delays and disruptions to treatment.

Normally TB takes four to six months to treat while patients with drug-resistant forms of the disease take medication for even longer.

Ditiu said that if we take into account all countries, not just the 23 high-burden countries, they estimate that the true extent of the number of undiagnosed TB climbs to 1.3 million cases.

“We did a modelling study a year ago and made predictions on how COVID-19 would impact the TB epidemic. What we see now that has really happened is the impact has been much worse than predicted,” said Ditiu.

Dr Yogan Pillay, who is the South African country director for the Clinton Health Access Initiative told Health-e News the COVID-19 pandemic “has had an impact on routine health services especially during lockdowns and increased patient loads in hospitals during the peak phases.” Pillay was also formerly in charge of HIV and TB for the National Department of Health.

Patients have also reported not going to health facilities for fear of contracting COVID-19.

“During these periods access to health services was reduced resulting in fewer tests for TB and HIV being recorded. This means that the number of ‘missing TB patients’ has increased from the already-high number estimated,” said Pillay. – Health-e News

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Amy Green