Tuberculosis epidemic larger than previously thought, says WHO

An Indian tuberculosis patient rests at The Rajan Babu Tuberculosis Hospital in New Delhi on March 24, 2014.
An Indian tuberculosis patient rests at The Rajan Babu Tuberculosis Hospital in New Delhi on March 24, 2014. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The tuberculosis (TB) epidemic is larger than previously thought, infecting 10.4 million people last year, while research into vaccines and cures is "severely underfunded," the World Health Organisation warned on Thursday (Oct 13).

Across the planet, 1.8 million people died of TB last year, 300,000 more than a year earlier, according to the WHO's Global TB Report 2016.

Two out of five people who fell sick with the disease - caused by a bacteria that infects the lungs and makes people cough up blood - went undiagnosed and untreated.

Nearly half a million people were diagnosed with multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB).

"WHO's annual look at the global state of tuberculosis this year makes for a shockingly bad report card," said a statement from Doctors Without Borders.

"The WHO Global TB Report is a wake-up call to break the status quo in how TB, and its drug-resistant forms, are being diagnosed and treated."

According to the report, the size of the epidemic rose largely because researchers realised that earlier estimates in India from 2000-2015 were too low.

Six countries accounted for 60 per cent of the new cases: India, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.

Despite the year-on-year jump from 2014-2015, looking back over the past 15 years, the number of TB deaths fell by 22 per cent, said the report.

Still, TB remained one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide last year.

And while the overall rate of TB worldwide is falling, the pace is not fast enough, the WHO report warned.

"Worldwide, the rate of decline in TB incidence remained at only 1.5 per cent from 2014 to 2015," it said. "This needs to accelerate to a four to five per cent annual decline by 2020 to reach the first milestones of the End TB Strategy."

The goal aims for a 35 per cent reduction in the absolute number of TB deaths and a 20 per cent reduction in the TB incidence rate by 2020, compared with levels in 2015.

Cash shortages are also a persistent problem.

"Funding during the decade 2005-2014 never exceeded US$0.7 billion (S$0.97 billion) per year," said the report.

The amount of money being spent on research and development for TB treatments needs to be at least US$2 billion per year, it added.