By Stephen Mule
This year, the two deadliest infectious diseases traded places. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that tuberculosis had overtaken HIV, as the deadliest infectious disease globally. The WHO report, released in October, estimated that there were almost 10 million new cases of TB in 2015. The disease killed 1.5 million people, ahead of 1.2 million claimed by HIV. For those of us who have committed ourselves to ending TB by 2030, this is extremely disconcerting.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Advances in science have brought us so far that we cannot allow this disease to beat us now. One of the most important of those scientific imperatives is the understanding of how these two diseases fuel each other. For instance, TB kills more than a 1000 people living with HIV every day. To end HIV as an epidemic, we must end TB as an epidemic and vice versa.
To end this deadly combination, we must respond aggressively to co-infection between the two diseases. In 2004, WHO established guidelines on addressing HIV-associated TB, emphasizing the necessity of linking TB and HIV services. The guidelines also outlined a set of joint activities that needed to be delivered to address the interface between the two diseases. Those guidelines evolved further into a more complex mechanism that sought to expand detection and prevention of TB, among people living with HIV. The approach also aimed at enhancing ownership of TB-HIV work, especially among people working in the HIV field. The WHO updated those policy recommendations in 2012, giving greater clarity on 12 specific activities needed to improve health services and health outcomes for people with, and at risk of, TB and HIV.
To end these two epidemics, we need to make sure that these policy guidelines are implemented. Doing that is one of the key ingredients in sending these two diseases into retreat. In 2014, ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership investigated whether the guidelines had been translated into commitments at global and national levels and produced a report titled From Rhetoric to Reality. The study showed that while bold policy steps had been taken to fight both TB and HIV, much more was needed. To address gaps, ACTION recommended that national HIV strategic plans prioritize TB-HIV joint activities—with a specific focus on screening all people living with HIV for TB—to ensure access to TB prevention, testing, treatment, and care.
Two years later, ACTION conducted another study and released a report titled From Policy to Practice. This report explores the progress made in TB-HIV integration efforts since 2012. It shows that HIV programs globally are lagging behind in accelerating TB-HIV activities, while TB programs are, comparatively, performing well in their efforts to accelerate TB-HIV activities. The study also found that global guidelines to address TB-HIV have not been prioritized by leading donors and affected countries.
To defeat TB and HIV, we have do more. The HIV community cannot afford to be left behind any longer in instituting joint TB-HIV integration.
International funders of HIV must also invest more vigorously in TB-HIV programming. The science is unequivocal in showing that more work around where these two diseases interact is indispensable to ending these highly interlinked diseases.
In the last twenty years, we have had remarkable investments in responding to HIV and tuberculosis. Without a doubt, great progress has been made against these diseases. But to end them as epidemics by 2030, we must accelerate our investments and implementation in TB-HIV activities.
The window is closing fast. The choices are stark. We must find ways of doing greater TB-HIV integration or risk losing two fights at once.
Stephen Mule is a Member of Parliament in Kenya and the Chair of Africa TB Caucus.