World Tuberculosis Day on 24 March is an opportunity for governments to renew efforts to control this devastating disease. More than 40% of the world’s TB cases occur in South Asia. While much research and funding focuses on HIV-associated TB and multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV infected individuals make up only 9% of global TB cases and less than 1% had MDR TB in 2017. Despite a huge sample size, there is a lack of research on TB in South Asia, particularly India, and on cases not associated with HIV. If nothing is done, TB will cost another 28 million lives in the next 10 years.
These shocking figures may seem like numbing statistics, but at an emotional level in Nepal, we all know people, including many family members, who have suffered and died of TB. Many readers also may have suffered from TB, and fortunately have been cured. Tuberculosis is so rampant in South Asia that every working day, clinicians struggle with the question in any random patient: Is this TB? This is in sharp contrast to the western world where TB is essentially a biblical disease.
While Nepal is a role model in the community-based DOTS (directly observed treatment short course) treatment, which ensures index patients are taking their medicines, this alone will not suffice in the battle against TB, since a patient would often have already infected others in the household and workplace. Which is why active case finding and early treatment is the key. But tragically there is massive under-reporting — Nepal gets over 40,000 new cases of TB a year with over 4,000 deaths, but many do not get diagnosis and treatment due to lack of resources for TB control.
The first ever prevalence survey for TB in Nepal is currently underway, and preliminary findings show a substantial increase in the estimate of total TB cases in the country. This would be consistent with the results of other prevalence surveys in the region, which have all demonstrated that the burden of TB has been substantially underestimated in South Asia. For example, evaluation of data from multiple sources in India showed an increase of more than 80% in the estimated incident TB cases from 1.6 million to 2.9 million in 2014. Although better than DOTS, just active case finding and treatment will not be enough to bring TB under control.