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New Numbers On Tuberculosis Burden Must Galvanize India To Act

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Dr. Madhukar Pai

Last week, WHO released its 2016 Global TB Report. The news, unfortunately, is not good. The report shows that the TB burden is actually higher than previously estimated, mainly because of new data from India. In 2015, there were an estimated 10.4 million new TB cases worldwide. Six countries accounted for 60 per cent of the total burden, with India accounting for 27 per cent of the global cases, followed by Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.

An estimated 1.8 million people died from TB in 2015, of whom 0.4 million were co-infected with HIV. Gaps in testing for TB and reporting new cases remain major challenges, as they have in the past. Of the 10.4 million new cases, WHO estimated that only 6.1 million were detected and officially notified in 2015, leaving a huge gap of 4.3 million cases that are "missing" -- either not diagnosed, or managed in large unregulated private sectors and not notified to TB programs.

India continues to bear the brunt of the TB epidemic, with 2.8 of the 10.4 million new TB cases that occurred in 2015. TB is also a major killer of Indian people. The latest Global Burden of Disease estimates from Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, published earlier this month, show TB to be the sixth leading cause of deaths in India. In 2005, TB was the sixth leading cause of deaths in India, and ten years later, in 2015, it holds its place as a leading killer of people in India.

These new estimates from WHO and GBD are disappointing and underscores the need for greater investments in global TB control. In particular, India really needs to wake up to the enormity of the epidemic in the country, and put some serious money behind its under-funded TB program. Global TB elimination is an impossible goal without significant progress in this emerging superpower.

It is worth comparing China's TB situation with that of India. China had 0.9 million TB cases in 2015, while India had over 2.8 million. The number of drug-resistant TB cases in China was 57,000, while India was estimated to have over 79,000. TB is no longer a major killer of people in China, and does not make the top 10 most important causes of death.

It is remarkable that China more than halved its TB prevalence over the last 20 years. Marked improvement in quality of TB treatment, driven by a major shift in treatment from hospitals to the China CDC public health centres (that implemented the DOTS strategy) was likely responsible for this effect, which has been demonstrated by repeated national TB prevalence surveys.

So, why does India struggle with a much higher TB burden? There are many reasons. For one, India has many social determinants that fuel the TB epidemic -- poverty, malnutrition, smoking, and indoor air pollution. Secondly, India has under-funded TB control for a very long time. And much of the focus was only on the public TB program. It is only recently that the national TB program has seriously started to address the problem of TB in India's large, dominant, private sector.

For a long time, India ignored TB patients managed in the private sector, and national prevalence and drug-resistance surveys were not periodically done (unlike China and other high TB burden countries). Furthermore, the Indian national TB program was (and still is) heavily reliant on insensitive diagnostic tools such as sputum microscopy. India is "fighting the TB war with 19th century cannons." All of this meant that India has been under-diagnosing and under-reporting the burden of TB for a long time.

With new research, our understanding of the true burden of TB in India is improving. We are now aware that private sector manages over half of all TB in India, new research suggests that enormous quantities of TB drugs are sold in the Indian private market.

In addition, although India made TB notification mandatory in 2012, it has taken a few years for private sector notifications to accumulate. Now, thanks to several public-private partnership programs, significant increases are being noticed in case notifications from private sector.

Overall, the path forward for India is very clear -- acknowledge the reality of a massive TB epidemic, collect better data on true burden of TB, deaths, and drug-resistance, and allocate greater funding to tackle this huge problem. This will not happen without high-level political commitment.

Last week, on the same day of the WHO TB report release, The Lancet published a comment by the Indian Health Minister Mr Jagat Prakash Nadda and Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, head of India's WHO Regional Office for South East Asia.

In their Comment, they acknowledged that TB is a bigger problem than imagined in India and other Asian countries, and suggested that TB should be made a top priority on national agendas. They also argue that political commitment should be translated into a comprehensive national TB control plan, and such a plan must be fully funded and implemented promptly by an empowered body that reports to the highest levels of government.

These statements by the Indian Health Minister is very impressive and progressive, as is the commitment from Dr Soumya Swaminathan, India's Secretary of the Department of Health Research about India's plans conduct prevalence surveys, develop innovative new tools for TB, address social determinants such as malnutrition, and create an India TB Research Consortium.

Hopefully, these leaders will deliver on the vision that they have articulated, and make TB a national priority in India. In fact, India has already started the process for creating the National Strategic Plan for TB Control in India (2017-2023). This plan must be ambitious, and fully funded by the Indian government. Otherwise, future TB reports will continue to bring bad news.

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