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Desmond Tutu

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On Ending Childhood Tuberculosis

Posted: 10/01/2013 6:41 am

At least 200 children die every day from tuberculosis. That amounts to about 70,000 child deaths around the globe.

I write at least because we do not really know the exact numbers. In many cases, TB hides behind other afflictions like pneumonia and malnutrition, and its symptoms can easily look like something less lethal. A child may come to a clinic with symptoms that are often misdiagnosed; or, the child has become so ill that she is already suffering from a permanent disability or is near death -- this is often the case when children also have HIV/AIDS.

That we have allowed this disease to continue to plague our lives and especially our children's lives is a travesty.

I should know because I contracted tuberculosis when I was 14. It took more than a year and a half of treatment in hospital, but the doctors knew I had it, and I survived. While I was battling the disease, I decided I wanted to become a doctor to help find a cure. Though fate and family finances led me on a different path, I have remained committed to eliminating the disease in South Africa and around the world.

Until recently, the approach to childhood TB was passive -- focusing on transmission by mainly adults. But I am pleased to see that the global health community is becoming more focused on the specific childhood problem. We all agree on the need to raise awareness in communities where there is a higher likelihood of getting TB. We also know that it will take a greater public-private commitment to identifying the disease and stopping its spread.

To lead this fight, the World Health Organization (WHO), Stop TB Partnership and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease along with many other partners such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US Agency for International Development are today releasing a roadmap to end deaths from childhood tuberculosis.

The roadmap outlines ten steps that the global community must take now to achieve this goal. They can be grouped into three areas.

The first is to activate a sense of urgency beyond the TB community. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among children infected with HIV/AIDS. Children with TB may die from pneumonia or other diseases, which means the broader maternal and child health and development communities matter. Governments matter too, and they need to unlock TB detection and treatment from specialized TB clinics.

Second, we must include the needs of children in research, policy development and clinical practices. There is a growing case for community-centered strategies to identify, prevent and treat the disease. If we collect and report better data, we will know how many children are actually suffering from TB, and be able to allocate precious resources more efficiently.

We also need to find better child-specific tests to detect tuberculosis and find drugs that are easier on young bodies, especially those ravaged by HIV/AIDS or that have drug-resistant TB.

Finally, we need to increase funding.

The good news is that ending the scourge of childhood tuberculosis doesn't cost much. According to the WHO, $80 million a year could end child deaths from TB. That is about three cents a day per patient to prevent the disease in communities where tuberculosis is prevalent and fifty cents a day per patient to treat the sick. Another $40 million would help us add medicine for children who are infected with TB and HIV.

The United States government has been a leader in these efforts through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has provided millions to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa. But we need more money, from multiple sources, to reach the goal.

It is a sad statement that childhood tuberculosis still kills as many children as it does. But this is an eminently solvable problem. All the world needs is a more aggressive commitment to end the disease.

That would make this tuberculosis survivor, and millions of others like me, very happy.

 
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