In The Globe and Mail, health reporter André Picard writes: We face a resurrection of the white death. Excerpt:
Over the centuries, it has had many monikers: white death, the white plague, the graveyard cough, phthisis and consumption, to name only a few.
But regardless of the name you give tuberculosis, it continues to evoke despair and horror.
While the ancient disease is now largely curable and no longer the universal scourge it once was (at one point, TB accounted for one in four deaths in the world), it still kills 1.8 million people a year and infects an estimated 10.4 million others.
Not to mention that more than two billion people – roughly one-third of the world’s population – are infected with TB bacilli, the microbes that cause TB.
Worse yet, in an era where we are making tremendous advances battling infectious disease, TB incidence and mortality are on the rise.
If that were not bad enough, TB is getting harder to treat because of the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains.
All in all, the World Health Organization’s 2016 global tuberculosis report makes for some grim reading. It concludes the world is making “dismal progress” toward ending the global epidemic.
Yet, there are some glimmers of hope – chief among them that India is finally starting to take tuberculosis seriously.
One of the most startling figures in the WHO report is that India reported 480,000 TB deaths in 2015, up from 220,000 in 2014. At first blush, that may seem like a disaster, but it actually reflects the fact that data collection is improving, not that deaths are soaring.
The WHO has set a bold goal of cutting TB deaths by 90 per cent and new TB cases by 80 per cent between 2015 and 2030, and it is clear that will be impossible unless India, which has one-quarter of all the cases in the world, takes a leading role.
“India really needs to wake up to the enormity of the epidemic in the country,” says Madhukar Pai, director of global-health programs at McGill University in Montreal.
Of the 10.4 million new tuberculosis cases worldwide in 2015, 2.8 million were in India. More than 40 per cent of those go untreated. This is particularly troubling because a person with active TB can infect 10 to 15 others in a year. (TB is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a pathogen that spreads through the air when people cough, sneeze or spit. Descriptors such as “white death” refer to the fact TB sufferers often have a ghostly, anemic pallor as they waste away.)