Even on World TB Day, it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had overshadowed the public messaging on tuberculosis.

Before COVID-19, TB was the world’s deadliest infectious disease, accounting for 1.4 million deaths in 2019. Data from the Stop TB Partnership showed that in South Africa, the COVID-19 disruptions led to a 40% reduction in TB notifications between March and September 2020. South Africa is one of the nine countries with the highest TB burdens in the world.

“All emphasis has now been turned to COVID-19. Resources, both financially and materially have also been diverted to fight COVID-19, leaving TB awareness campaigns lagging behind,” said Rev. Zwathoho Nevhutali.

A Johannesburg-based TB activist from the South African National Aids Council, Nevhutali was speaking on World TB Day on 24 March.

“Now we are not sure whether we are going to meet our targets set for 2022,” said Nevhutali, referring to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) End TB Strategy. “However, we are not going to give up although this has adversely affected our programmes.”

The WHO’s End TB Strategy aims to effectively end the epidemic by 2035 and has set incremental goals for countries including goals for 2022. According to the Stop TB Partnership, the disruptions to health access as a result of COVID-19 have set this goal back by 12 years.

TB and also HIV affected by COVID-19

South Africa’s COVID-19 ministerial advisory committee chairman Professor Barry Schoub, told Health-e News that COVID-19 has impacted the entire health system and its infrastructure, indirectly affecting the combating of other diseases.

“For instance there is a link between HIV and TB. So if COVID-19 affects the fight against TB, it goes without saying that HIV will automatically also be affected,” Schoub said.

Nevhutali said that contrary to what most people think, TB kills more people in South Africa than any other infectious disease.

“However, the irony is that TB can be cured. So why does a disease which can be cured kill more people than diseases which are incurable? We must continue intensifying awareness campaigns against TB. We were doing very well before COVID-19, so let’s continue the fight.” — Health-e News