Ahead of World TB Day 2021, Irish Thoracic Society Calls for the Future-proofing of Healthcare Services in the Battle Against Infectious Diseases

Ahead of World TB Day 2021 this Wednesday March 24, the Irish Thoracic Society (ITS) is calling on the government to take decisive action to combat the hidden but very real and devastating health, social and economic impact of tuberculosis (TB) and to bring Ireland in line with our European neighbours in the fight against this preventable disease. The call comes as the ITS joins a global call for accelerated efforts to end TB by 2030 and to mitigate the toll that COVID-19 is taking on TB services worldwide.

The ITS has outlined five key actions that Government needs to take including the appointment of a national TB controller, a national TB screening programme for high-risk groups, investment in contact tracing and surveillance activities, and an education and awareness programme for healthcare professionals and the public (more details below).

Ninth Leading Cause of Death
As the world continues its battle against another infectious disease, COVID-19, TB remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious killers and is the ninth leading cause of death worldwide. Each day nearly 4,000 people lose their lives to TB – approximately 1.5 million annually – and close to 28,000 people fall ill with this preventable and curable disease. Global efforts to combat TB have saved an estimated 63 million lives since 2000. In Ireland, 267 cases of TB were notified to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in 2019.

COVID-19, now in its second year, is continuing to divert essential medical resources and attention away from providing life-saving diagnosis, medicine and care to people suffering from TB worldwide. In addition, drug-resistant and multi-drug resistant TB pose a significant threat to gains made, making the fight against TB ever more complex and challenging.

Likelihood of Rising TB Cases

According to Dr Marcus Butler, Consultant Respiratory Physician and Vice-President of the Irish Thoracic Society, Ireland’s highly dedicated but inadequately resourced TB service is struggling to protect the health of the population. This is particularly so for its most vulnerable and socially marginalised communities who are most susceptible to TB – those in the homeless and prison populations, as well as many in our migrant communities:

“Sub-standard and overcrowded living conditions, poor nutrition, drug and alcohol misuse, as well as a weakened immune system due to other illnesses are all factors associated with increased risk of acquiring TB. COVID-19 has worsened these conditions for many, while bringing many more below the poverty line for the first time.

“The likelihood of rising TB cases as a result of the pandemic comes against the backdrop of increased pressure on health services, re-allocation of staffing resources and reduced numbers of people presenting with their symptoms due to COVID-19 restrictions. All of these factors are storing up an unprecedented TB crisis for a resource-starved service on top of an already complex and demanding, albeit largely hidden, public health threat.

“The fragility of Ireland’s health infrastructure has been highlighted by the strain our healthcare service was placed under by the surges in COVID-19 cases over the last 12 months. This is partly due to chronic under-investment in appropriate infrastructure to care for patients with infectious diseases such as TB and COVID-19. Urgent action is needed to future-proof our healthcare settings and services in the battle against infectious diseases.”

To mark World TB Day 2021, countries are being urged to implement the priority recommendations outlined in the 2020 progress report on TB issued by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and the World Health Organisation. At national level, these echo the central recommendations in the National Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of TB in Ireland launched in 2010 and reiterated in three subsequent reports.

 

FIVE ACTIONS TO COMBAT TB IN IRELAND

For Ireland’s TB problem the ‘clock has been ticking’ for over a decade. The Irish Thoracic Society is now calling for urgent action as recommended by national and international experts in the following vital areas:

1. Leadership
UN WHO Recommendation:
Fully activate high-level leadership to urgently reduce TB deaths and drive multisectoral action to end TB

Call to action for Ireland: Appoint a national TB Controller to lead the development and integration of a national TB service.

2. Prevention
UN WHO Recommendation:
Dramatically scale up provision of preventive treatment for TB

Call to action for Ireland: Establish a national programme to screen for and treat latent TB in high-risk groups to reduce the incidence of the disease in Ireland. Such groups include people who are homeless, the prison population and new entrants to Ireland from countries with a high incidence of TB. If the disease is treated in its latent form – where infection exists but is not contagious and there are no symptoms of illness – it will prevent the development of an active, contagious form of the disease.

3. Diagnosis and Treatment
UN WHO Recommendation:
Urgently increase funding for essential TB services including the health workforce

Call to action for Ireland: Establish a co-ordinated and resourced national clinical programme encompassing hospital-based clinics, appropriate inpatient facilities, public health and laboratory services. Invest in public health resourcing of contact-tracing, case-management and surveillance activities. Develop the Irish Mycobacteria Reference Laboratory (IMRL) and the National Clinical TB Centre on the St. James’s Hospital site without further delay.

4. Drug Resistant TB Crisis
UN WHO Recommendation:
Address the drug-resistant TB crisis to close persistent gaps in care

Call to action for Ireland: Provide universal availability of expert TB care and ready access to well-supported hospital beds for multi-drug-resistant (MDR) TB cases, extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB cases and complex TB cases in people who are socially marginalised.

5. Education and Awareness
UN WHO Recommendation:
Ensure meaningful engagement of civil society, communities and people affected by TB. Promote human rights and combat stigma and discrimination.

Call to action for Ireland: Promote education and awareness in relation to TB among healthcare professionals and members of the public. Raise awareness of the symptoms of TB which include persistent cough and phlegm or weight loss and night sweats. People experiencing these symptoms are encouraged to see a health care professional to get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, to minimise the chance of long-term ill health and onward transmission. Ensure that under-served populations are aware of symptoms and can access treatment. As a society, tackle the health inequalities, social marginalisation and deprivation that put people at increased risk of TB.

ENDS

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash