Last week I travelled to the 47th Union World Conference on Lung Health in the city of Liverpool in the north of England. I was there as a member of the British House of Lords to meet others to discuss how parliamentarians can work together to help to end the Tuberculosis (TB) epidemic. TB killed more people worldwide last year than any other infectious disease – 1.8 million.
The conference gave me a chance to meet some European and Central Asian colleagues. I was particularly interested to hear about the response to tackling TB across the region. As I attended my meetings certain topics came up repeatedly - the most prominent of which was drug-resistance. Europe and Central Asia has the fastest growing drug-resistant TB epidemic in the world.
Although other regions also face the challenge of drug-resistant TB, Europe and Central Asia have a particularly large proportion of TB cases which are drug-resistant. This demonstrates that there has been a struggle to ensure that the course of treatment for TB is completed and that drugs are easily accessible and of good quality. If a course of antibiotics is cut short, it becomes much more likely that the bacteria will adapt to become resistant to the drugs, which can mean the resultant new strain of the disease can be spread to others.
In September this year my work on TB took me to Kiev in Ukraine. I went to Kiev to promote the work of the Global TB Caucus, which is a network of parliamentarians such as myself working in partnership with civil society to fight for an increase in funding for TB and to raise awareness of TB within governments and parliaments.
Within an hour of landing in Kiev I met a Ukrainian MP who told me that her grandfather had died of TB. During my visit it seemed that a great many of the people we spoke to had a personal story relating to the disease. I learned of patients who had battled TB for many years, suffering horrible side-effects of the toxic cocktail of drugs they were taking. In the majority of cases TB is a curable disease yet it was obvious that drug-resistant strains are taking hold in the region and the epidemic is continuing to grow at a worrying rate.
Across much of Central Asia and Eastern Europe the practice is to keep TB patients in hospital for the duration of their treatment. This is not only extremely costly but also means that patients can’t be at home with their families or friends or earn an income. If a patient can be treated at home they are more likely to finish their medication, meaning that drug-resistant strains of the disease are less likely to take hold. However, now that drug-resistant strains are so common, many people will contract this form of TB from the outset and so will never have the opportunity to take the shorter course of treatment.
As a parliamentarian I understand that in different political systems it can often be difficult for civil society to get their voice heard. However, it is increasingly important that we work together as TB continues to pose a threat to us all.
In Kiev I was invited to teach at a training workshop with NGOs and civil society from across the region who were working together to get TB on the political agendas in their countries.
I spoke to them about how to attract a parliamentarian’s attention on such an important issue and explained what works and what doesn’t work in this process – based on my own experience. Parliamentarians – as legislators – are key to the process of decision making on health care issues and so it is hugely important that they are well briefed on issues such as TB and the growth of drug resistant forms of the disease.
I left my visit to Kiev in Ukraine - as well as the conference in Liverpool last week - feeling extremely positive because once again I had met such wonderful, passionate and committed people from parliaments and civil society alike. The Global TB Caucus provides us with an effective mechanism to connect parliamentarians and civil society. By providing the technical support and policy knowledge civil society can work with parliamentarians to work out the best way to press governments to improve their TB policies and programmes in their countries.