SEATTLE, Washington — A well-known fact regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is its lingering effects on individuals with pre-existing conditions. Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease responsible for the most annual deaths globally, and this number will only increase with TB in the age of COVID-19. TB is an airborne disease of the lungs spread through coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include a harsh cough, weight loss and a high fever. Though the prevalence of drug-resistant TB is low in both of the Americas, the disease is extremely prevalent in Africa and South-East Asia.
The implications of TB in the age of COVID-19
Unfortunately, lockdown measures that were effective in the prevention of COVID-19 could have catastrophic implications for the diagnosis and treatment of TB. Additionally, TB survivors may be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Research on the interactions between the diseases is still early, but the coinciding of the two could prove to be highly dangerous.
On the bright side, existing TB services are holding infections at bay somewhat successfully. The problem is maintaining these measures during the COVID-19 crisis. Existing TB services must resume as quickly as possible to prevent a ‘snowball effect’ of increased, untreated infections. Left without proper care, these infections could lead to an additional 1.8 million cases of TB and cost 342,000 lives.
Tuberculosis, COVID-19 and the World’s Poor
World poverty is a significant factor when considering the populations of people most vulnerable to TB infection. Thus, when considering TB in the age of COVID-19, it is crucial to consider how the world economic downturn will affect and magnify the world’s poor. With an increase in poverty, a risk factor for TB and a decrease in diagnosis and treatment of TB, the COVID-19 crisis could cause a sharp increase in TB cases.
The Stop TB Partnership is one organization with an optimistic outlook. “The solution is not rocket science” to address both COVID-19 and TB simultaneously, said Executive Director Lucica Ditiu in a webinar. “We already have the infrastructure to do both in parallel.” Upon recent approval, some TB testing technology can also apply to COVID-19 testing. Some funding that would have been used for TB in the past is now allocated to COVID-19 spending; therefore, consolidation could be very important.
TB Vaccine May Also Help Prevent COVID-19
Researchers in Boston are testing the TB vaccine called BCG on healthcare workers on the frontlines to see if the vaccine will boost peoples’ immunity to fight COVID-19. The vaccine does not provide fool-proof immunity against TB. However, BCG aids the immune system in countering pathogens related to a whole host of infectious diseases, including leprosy. Though scientists differ on the matter of whether the vaccine will probably be helpful in the fight against COVID-19, many believe it is worth investigating.
Both COVID-19 and TB have a fatality rate of around 3%. TB in the age of COVID-19 presents unique challenges. While COVID-19 effects the whole world, a large portion of the global population suffers from TB as well. The interactions between the diseases, both on a physical and institutional level, must be considered. Hopefully, if world governments take note of the interactions between the diseases, sound decisions on a public policy level will prevent COVID-19 from effecting an increase in TB infections.
– Elise Ghitman