Over nine million new cases of tuberculosis (TB), and nearly two million deaths from TB, are estimated to occur around the world every year. TB is the leading cause of death among curable infectious diseases and in 1993 the World Health Organization declared TB a global emergency.
Last week, news of a teenager’s death in Birmingham from tuberculosis came as health experts released new figures, showing the number of people diagnosed with TB in one part of the Midlands, was the second highest in the country after London. Around 9000 cases of TB are currently reported each year in the United Kingdom with urban environments such as London seeing the majority of cases. Most tuberculosis cases in Britain are in people born overseas, although not in recent arrivals. In recent research the latest figure shows that about 85 percent of people with tuberculosis have been in Britain for at least two years, meaning the disease is not being imported, but circulating locally.
“The rise in tuberculosis cases has nothing to do with migration and immigrants,” said Alimuddin Zumla of University College London, author of the commentary. “This is a fallacy that needs to be corrected,” he said, noting the same risks that plagued Victorian England – like poor housing, bad ventilation and overcrowding – are to blame for Britain’s current outbreak of tuberculosis.
With almost a third of the world’s population infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, these worrying figures of TB cases in the UK is a reflection of the inadequate control of TB globally. Since being declared a global emergency in 1993, the response from the international community has been slow and wholly inadequate. Over the past 20 years we have seen a resurgence of the disease and the emergence and rise of multidrug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant strains. In addition we have seen the detrimental effect of the concurrent tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS epidemics on national control programmes in sub-Saharan Africa which have all occurred despite the availability of effective combination treatment regimens.
The UK government has a responsibility to develop effective strategies within its development policies that effectively control and tackle tuberculosis in the countries in which it works. Only by taking this global approach to tackling this disease can we then also significantly impact on effective TB control in the UK.