Forgotten But Not Gone: Childhood TB meeting brings together advocates to combat the global childhood TB epidemic
Amy Boldosser is Senior Program Officer for Global Advocacy at Family Care International.
Many people, including advocates who work on maternal, newborn and child health, may be surprised to learn that tuberculosis (TB) is the third leading killer of women of reproductive age worldwide and that globally over 1 million children become sick with TB each year. In fact, one-third of the world’s population is currently infected with TB. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that often attack the lungs but may also spread to the brain or other areas of the body. TB is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even laughs. Children are at particular risk for contracting TB due to their weaker immune systems and are likely to become infected if their mothers are sick. Vulnerable children, such as those whose families are living in poverty, who are orphans, or who already have HIV or other diseases, are even more susceptible since they are more likely to be malnourished, lack access to good health care, and are likely to be living in cramped quarters with their families. In addition, women with TB are two times more likely to have premature babies or experience stillbirth.
On January 5, 2012, a group of concerned advocates, researchers, and medical professionals came together in Washington, DC for a community dialogue and strategy session on combating this global epidemic. The meeting was organized by the Treatment Action Group (TAG), the Center for Global Health Policy, ACTION, Stop TB Partnership, and the American Thoracic Society. As Coco Jervis, Senior Policy Associate at TAG said, the meeting was a way to “sound the alarm” about this leading killer of mother and children, to raise awareness of the impact of TB on global health, and to develop advocacy and research agendas.
Speakers at the event highlighted that most cases of TB in children and women could be easily prevented with simple, inexpensive measures and increased detection. The lack of integration of TB care into HIV and maternal and child health services in many health systems means that mothers and children are frequently not tested for TB at pre-natal or well-woman visits, a huge missed opportunity. If TB is detected early in a child it can almost always be cured. But delays caused by poor access to healthcare or parents not being able to afford the 6 months of treatment with multiple different drugs required to treat TB results in more than 200,000 children dying from TB each year (a number which is likely much higher due to underreporting). Family Care International is working with partners across Africa to increase integration of maternal, newborn and child health services with programs for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to address these delays in diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the Children’s Tuberculosis Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Sharon Nachman, a professor of pediatrics at SUNY Stony Brook University Medical Center in Long Island, highlighted the significant research and treatment needs that exist noting that many drug trials do not include a focus on developing pediatric versions of TB medicines and do not include pregnant women. The mother of a 6 month old TB patient at Texas Children’s Hospital shared the heartbreaking story of how her son, who did have access to high quality medical care in the US, was misdiagnosed and developed TB meningitis, an extremely dangerous brain infection. He suffered through months of painful treatments and surgeries before beginning to recover. She called on public health authorities and drug companies to make simple changes like creating chewable tablets of TB medication that would be easier for children to take and conducting routine testing in children. She reminded participants in the meeting that TB is not only a problem in the developing world but is also a very real health threat here in the United States.
The good news is that treatments are available for TB and new drugs are in development. The US government also increased its development aid for tuberculosis programs worldwide by 5% for 2012, an important success considering the current economic climate. But more must be done. Check out the Stop TB Partnership’s website for ways that you can get involved with World Tuberculosis Day on March 24, 2012 to help raise awareness of the need to stop TB: www.stoptb.org
Learn more about the impact of TB on women and children through ACTION’s issue briefs below, and consider sharing this information through Facebook, Twitter, or email to help raise awareness of tuberculosis among your family and friends.