MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial disease that typically affects the lungs. In 2019, about 1.4 million people in the world died from TB. The disease is highly infectious and, similar to COVID-19, is airborne. A person contracts tuberculosis by breathing in the cough or sneeze droplets of an infected individual with active TB. Mexico ranks relatively low in cases per year compared to countries in Africa or Asia. In fact, Mexico has made significant progress over the past decades in TB prevention and treatment. Mexico receives almost all funding for tuberculosis domestically. However, changes in the government in recent years and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to reverse the progress Mexico has made and exacerbate its number of cases. Here is some information about the vaccine shortage in Mexico.
The vaccine shortage in Mexico is occurring on the federal, state and local levels like never before due to changes in the way the government purchases them. Blaming pharmaceutical companies for shortages in the past, monopoly and corruption, the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has opted for a new system. In this new system, the government curtails the approval of health authorities to purchase medicine abroad. The issue with this decision is that the government lacks expertise and free trade agreements with the countries producing medicine.
According to the National Epidemiological Surveillance System of the Ministry of Health, the number of tuberculosis cases detected rose from 17,433 cases in 2018 to over 45,000 cases in 2019. Over 2,000 people died of the disease each year. The BCG vaccine along with many others for measles and hepatitis B experienced a considerable decline in coverage. For example, there has not been a vaccine for tuberculosis in the state of Guanajuato since January 2019.
For decades, Mexico has endorsed a universal, free campaign, mandating newborns received the BCG vaccine to deter infection from adults. This has proven to be strongly effective, but the distribution of vaccines are no longer guaranteed as they once were. Specialists now project that 300,000 to 500,000 children are at risk of contracting the bacteria.
Tuberculosis and COVID-19 in Mexico
The coronavirus pandemic emerged in the midst of Mexico’s ongoing war with pharmaceuticals and has now pushed tuberculosis to the side. Mexico is in the top 10 countries with the most COVID-19 cases. With all the attention on containing the virus, there is a reason to infer that medical professionals are misdiagnosing TB patients with COVID-19. Diagnosis of tuberculosis cases in late May was 263 compared to 1,097 from the same week the previous year. COVID-19 and pulmonary TB share similar symptoms including fever, fatigue and cough.
The most vulnerable populations in Mexico face endangerment. Tuberculosis and COVID-19 are extremely dangerous for those with HIV. An individual with a TB disease and HIV coinfection faces an “AIDS-defining condition.” A misdiagnosis for someone with HIV could mean life or death.
The indigenous population is also more susceptible to dying from TB and COVID-19 especially in remote and impoverished locations. The state of Chiapas, home to many indigenous populations, struggles with a high prevalence of tuberculosis. Lockdowns, language barriers and underreporting have kept these populations from seeking the treatment they need. Displaced people and migrants face similar challenges.
What Mexico’s Next Steps Should Be
The Stop TB Partnership, concerned about the global impact COVID-19 may have on countries with TB, issued advice to countries on how to restore progress amid the pandemic. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to end the TB epidemic by 2030. To continue striving for that goal, countries like Mexico must take the initiative to:
- Restore normal or improved TB services. Supplementary measures and resources are necessary to find and reduce the number of undetected cases accumulated over lockdowns. This includes but is not limited to intensive contact-tracing and community involvement using technology to spread awareness of TB alongside COVID-19.
- Secure reliable access to the supply of quality medicine and care for TB patients.
Although the number of COVID-19 cases far exceeds those of tuberculosis in Mexico, one should not overlook the importance of combating the two diseases. Mexico has shown that it is capable of progress and to reverse that progress would be detrimental to the lives of thousands with TB. The country needs to address its vaccine shortage in Mexico so that adults and children receive protection from all preventable diseases, including tuberculosis.
– Johana Vazquez