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Can we stop TB from killing people? The world’s largest gathering kicks off

  • In Paris today, experts on lung health from across the globe are coming together at The Union’s World Conference on Lung Health to talk about how tuberculosis (TB) research can help to thwart one of the planet’s top killers.
  • In 2022, 1.3-million people died from the disease and about 10 times this number of new infections occurred last year.
  • Despite it being a curable disease, deaths fell by only 19% between 2015 and 2022, far off the target of 75% by 2025.
  • We’ve put together a collection of our most recent coverage on TB to help you be part of the conversation.

Linda Pretorius and Nicole Ludolph break down how the world’s largest TB gathering hopes to stop deaths from the bug in our newsletter. Sign up.

Fighting it, treating it, preventing it. 

In Paris today, policymakers, researchers and activists have come together for the start of The Union’s annual World Conference on Lung Health, of which a large part focuses on tuberculosis (TB).

It’s the world’s largest gathering of decision-makers such as doctors, health programme managers, researchers and policymakers. 

Despite being curable, TB is still one of the biggest killers on the planet. In 2022, 1.3-million people died from the disease and almost 10 times this number of new infections occurred last year. 

South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — has for years ranked among those with the most cases of TB

The conference opens just days after numbers from the latest Global TB Report show that the world is far from reaching its goals to end TB as a public health threat by 2030. TB-related deaths dropped by only 19% from 2015 to 2022. The global goal is a 75% reduction by 2025. Only about 9% fewer new cases were reported than before; the aim, to which UN member countries such as South Africa subscribed at a high-level meeting in New York in September, is to get this number down by 50% by 2025. 

Ending TB can’t be untangled from tackling social issues such as poverty and inequality. People who are poor often live in crowded spaces with poor ventilation, have too little to eat and don’t have the financial buffer to change their circumstances. Add to that the two-way effect of HIV, which weakens people’s immune systems and so makes people vulnerable to getting infected with TB, it can seem like an unbreakable cycle. 

But things can change when plans for diagnosing, treating and preventing the disease work well. In South Africa, for example, TB cases fell from about 1 200 per 100 000 people in 2005 to just over 500 per 100 000 in about 15 years. Although it’s not fast enough, we’re at least moving in the right direction — and a meeting of minds like this week’s, where evidence drives discussions for moving us forward, is another step along this trajectory. 

To give background on the issues that will be discussed at the conference, and to help you learn more about how TB is managed in South Africa, we’ve put together this page so you can read how we’ve covered the disease all in one place — from preventing and treating TB to dealing with the fallout of the disease and understanding how climate change will affect its spread. Read and watch our stories below.

[READ] M72: Three things you need to know about a TB jab that might work

About a quarter of the world’s people are infected with the TB germ, and although a vaccine can’t stop someone from getting the bug, it can keep them from falling ill with the disease. In South Africa, all babies get a shot of the bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine when they’re born — at the moment the only effective jab against the disease. But it’s been around for more than a century and its effects wane after about 15 years, meaning people are vulnerable to getting ill from the time they’re teenagers. 

Research on new vaccine development is high on the agenda at this week’s conference. Read more about where the trial for the M72/AS01E vaccine — a candidate jab furthest down the development road at the moment — is headed.

Over the past 20 years, South Africa’s approach to dealing with TB infections has changed significantly. Instead of having to wait to test positive, people with a big chance of getting TB (such as those with HIV) have, since 2011, been able to swallow a pill once a day for six months to prevent infection. The tablet contains isoniazid, an antibiotic that kills TB germs.

In February, the health department published a new set of guidelines to tackle infections, which says that everyone who has had “significant exposure” to TB can now get treatment, regardless of their HIV status or age. There are four different options.

Read more about what the new guidelines could mean for TB in South Africa, and watch an easy explainer on how to use the prevention pills.

[READ] Can taking two pills a week slow down TB in South Africa? There’s a new plan in place

[WATCH] How to use pills to prevent TB

Until recently, scientists have said that you’ll know you have active TB if you’re losing weight, coughing all the time, or experiencing fever or night sweats. But this classic picture is changing. More than half of people who have TB might not know they’re ill — in other words, they’re asymptomatic. 

In March, we interviewed Emily Wong, an infectious diseases researcher at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, for an episode of The Bhekisisa Podcast to find out what we know about asymptomatic TB, and what we don’t.

Here’s a summary of what she said.

[READ] Should you be worried about asymptomatic TB?

Although TB is curable, dealing with the fallout of the disease can last someone’s entire life. Earlier this year, Brian Allwood, a lung health researcher from Stellenbosch University, wrote in an op-ed that in his 13 years as a lung specialist, he’s had to be the one to tell dozens of shocked patients that finishing a course of TB treatment doesn’t necessarily mean they’re rid of the disease — or the damage it has caused — for good. He recalls how one of his patients told him that “no one said that TB would never leave me”.

Read more about the condition called post-TB lung disease and two first-person accounts from people who shared their stories about fighting TB — and the cost of getting cured.

[READ] The forgotten form of TB that can carry on forever

[READ] #SliceOfLife: I survived TB five years ago but the stigma still follows me around

[READ] #SliceOfLife: I survived the most deadly type of TB, but it cost me a lung

At the United Nations General Assembly’s high-level meeting on TB in September, the world again vowed to make TB treatment easier to get, work to address HIV and TB together, and tackle the stigma that stops people from getting help. But at least one thing that will make it harder for us to reach our goals of ending the disease by 2030, is climate change. 

Find out what more extreme weather events more often, driven by our planet getting hotter than it should be, will mean for the spread of TB.

[READ] Will the Earth’s changing climate make TB spread faster?