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WHO report says tuberculosis is a worldwide threat, and the pandemic could make it worse

By ERIN BLAKEMORE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 24, 2020

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In 2019 alone, an estimated 10 million people worldwide got tuberculosis, a deadly bacterial disease that usually affects the lungs. An estimated quarter of the world's population has a TB infection. Most aren't actively sick — yet.

People with TB have a 5% to 15% risk of getting ill. Still, the highly contagious disease was one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide last year and is the leading infectious killer worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, the United Nations' public health agency.

In a new report, WHO provides a global update on the state of TB and the fight against the disease, which is both preventable and curable.

The report paints a dire picture of a disease that remains a public health crisis. Just eight countries — India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa — account for two-thirds of the world's TB cases. And because many carriers of the disease are not yet ill, it can go untreated until it's too late.

Tuberculosis incidences are falling, the agency says — between 2015 and 2019, cases were reduced by about 9 percent. But that still falls short of WHO's targets.

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to make things worse.

Large drops occurred in TB diagnoses between January and June. Due to the economic effects of the pandemic, WHO models predict that cases could annually increase by more than 1 million in the next five years if resources continue to be diverted to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The stark report has positive news however. Funding for TB prevention, diagnosis and treatment has doubled since 2006, and seven high-burden countries reached their death reduction milestone. And people living with HIV are more likely than ever to be given preventive treatment for tuberculosis, which is the leading killer of people with HIV worldwide.