Infectious Diseases, Research, Vaccination, Health Systems, Government Policy

Defeating Tuberculosis: A Possibility?

~Written by Sarah Khalid Khan (Contact:

Disease has always played a part in reforming community and geographical distribution of people through the ages. The bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, cholera and tuberculosis (TB), are some of the illnesses that have altered human history. Interestingly, TB has been glorified in literature more than others. The characters, Mimi in La boheme, Fantine in Les Miserables and Satine in Moulin Rouge all met with a similar fate at the hands of this disease.

According to the Global Tuberculosis Report 2015, the year 2015 is considered a turning point for TB as the global community progressed from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). TB mortality has decreased by 47% since 1990. Between 1990 and 2014, as a result of correct and timely diagnosis, 43 million lives were saved. We have made progress by moving from the “Stop TB Strategy” to the “End TB Strategy”. According to the latter, the targets for 2030 are to reduce the number of TB deaths by 90% and incidence by 80% (1).


These statistics give us hope for a world without TB. But, having worked in a tertiary hospital in a low middle-income country, I have my doubts. Although the statistics reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) are the best available at the moment, these are estimates with very wide confidence intervals and may not provide a precise idea of the current situation in low and low middle income countries (LIC and LMICs).

In the surgical ward where I worked, one-third of the abdominal procedures were for perforation due to abdominal TB. To my knowledge, patient records were maintained through an electronic health system on the hospital server. Hard copies of the records were kept in nurses’ offices or junior doctors; duty rooms. These were put in storage, usually available for 4 to 5 years. The conditions of the storage area were extremely shabby and damp, where paper records could hardly survive. Electronic records, however, were said to be available in perpetuity. No one knew if these records were ever shared with the WHO to help with estimates. Popular opinion was that if the world knew the actual incidence and prevalence of diseases like TB in countries like ours it would be an embarrassment. Regardless, it is essential to have as accurate as possible estimates to converge efforts towards a TB free world.

Despite the best intentions and apparently achievable goals, the situation remains grim. According to the WHO, TB still imposes a great burden on the world. In 2014, 9.6 million new cases of TB were diagnosed while 1.5 million people died as a result of TB (2). Despite the history of this disease, research for newer TB drugs has been limited (3). In 2012, a new drug for multidrug resistant TB was introduced after a drought of 50 years (4). In addition, though BCG vaccines are part of immunization programs in countries where the disease is endemic, the current vaccine was developed in 1921 and is not entirely effective (5). A systemic review and meta-analysis that included articles from 1950 to 2013 reported 19% efficacy against TB in vaccinated children compared to non-vaccinated children (6). Although current research is encouraging there are questions of affordability of newer drugs for low resource countries where TB is more prevalent. Furthermore, five percent of the global burden of TB is due to multidrug resistant strains (7). The research required for averting these cases poses additional problems of affordability, availability and accessibility in LICs and LMICs.

Children present another area of grave concern. It is estimated that 550,000 children are infected with TB each year. The condition is frequently overlooked in children, often due to delayed and inefficient diagnosis (8). Adoption of the latest recommended diagnostic tools by the WHO is a challenge in itself because accessibility, affordability and availability again come into play in LICs and LMICs. Since TB flourishes in poor living conditions, the current global refugee and migrant situation has increased concerns about TB exposure, infection and transmission (9).

It is time that LICs and LMICs focus on establishing the true burden of major diseases like TB, and work towards adopting recommended diagnostic tools and treatment for all forms of TB. Unless the state actors and international community work together, the policies and aid provided will continue to fall short and the target to end TB will remain out of reach.



1. World Health Organization. Global Tuberculosis Report 2015. 2015.

2. World Health Organization. Research for Tuberculosis Elimination. 2014.

3. Frick M. 2014. Report on Tuberculosis Research Funding Trends, 2005-2013. [Internet]. Treatment Action Group. 2015. Available from: final.pdf

4. Médecins Sans Frontières, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. DR-TB Drugs Under the Microscope. Sources and prices for drug-resistant tuberculosis medicines. 2nd edition. 2013.

5. World Health Organization. Tuberculosis vaccine development [Internet]. World Health Organization; 2015 [cited 2016 Mar 19]. Available from:

6. A Roy et al. Effect of BCG vaccination against Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection in children: systemic review and meta-analysis.  BMJ 2014; 349:g4643

7. World Health Organization. Multidrug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB). 2015.

8. World Health Organization. Combating Tuberculosis in Children. 2015.

9. World Health Organization. Tuberculosis prevention and care for migrants. 2014.