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World Tuberculosis Day -- Do We Really Need It?

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You can be forgiven if you're fatigued when it comes to commemorative days. There are so many worthwhile causes and campaigns that compete for media, funding and political and popular support that often these days come and go without a notice.

Too bad then, that we still desperately need this annual reminder about tuberculosis (TB).

World TB Day, March 24, originally created in 1982 to celebrate the 100-year anniversary since German scientist Dr. Robert Koch presented his findings on the discovery of the tuberculosis bacilli and to raise awareness on TB, could be a celebration. Instead, the necessity to continue to mark this day and the current state of funding for TB is a story at the moment steeped in failure. It is a damning indictment on global public health that a disease that was once rooted in the Dickensian workhouses and factories of the 19th century still preys on the poorest in large parts of the developing world. Worse, access to prevention and treatment provided to those most at risk is being gravely undermined by the cancellation of the next round of funding by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Late last year, in response to some lackluster pledges and the global recession, the Global Fund -- the world's biggest funder for TB -- announced that it was suspending funding on new projects until 2014. Life-saving momentum that has built up in the fight against TB, AIDS and malaria is grossly at risk of being lost because of this shortfall in funding.

I have referred to the successes of the Global Fund in several previous posts, so forgive me for banging the drum, but it's worth highlighting them again. The Global Fund can claim:

  • 8.6 million people treated for tuberculosis
  • 3.3 million people currently on AIDS treatment
  • 1.3 million HIV positive women celebrating the births of their HIV negative children (due to successful prevention of mother-to-child transmission)
  • 230 million insecticide-treated nets now protect families from malaria

But these are not institutional successes. These are people. These are people who had access to prevention and treatment so they did not die. Their children were not orphaned, their communities do not miss them, their economies are less threatened.

There is no escaping the cloud that has been cast over those of us who don't draw boundaries, between ourselves and the rest of the world, when it comes to access to health. Recently Dr. Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS said that "With enough money spent in the right way, the world could soon reduce new HIV infections to zero, but global apathy and the financial crisis mean it might take another 50 years to stop the AIDS epidemic." Given that TB is the largest killer of those living with HIV/AIDS, you can see how this gloomy prediction has wide-ranging ramifications.

De Lay points to "apathy and the financial crisis." Is that it, then? Is it apathy and the financial crisis that stands between us and fully funding the Global Fund? Is that what stands between humanity and the end of TB? The end of AIDS? Is that what stands between us and making World TB Day a celebration of the above achievements and a promise to do much more?

Is apathy and the financial crisis what stand between us and the saving the lives of people who lack access to basic prevention and treatment?

Our inability to muster the moral outrage to fund the fight of a disease that claims nearly two million lives each year and yet can be combated relatively easily and cheaply, is as good a reason as any to pause and reflect on World TB Day.

So, yes, we do really need this day. Because this fight is one day, and one life at a time.

Kolleen Bouchane is the director of ACTION an international partnership of civil society advocates working to mobilize resources on global health.

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This post has been updated since its original publication.

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