TB: The World’s Deadliest Infectious Disease at Large in London

10 Nov 2015

Recently the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its annual Global Tuberculosis Report. For the first time ever, the report confirmed TB’s unwanted title of the world’s deadliest infectious disease.  In 2014, TB killed 1.5 million people, surpassing the 1.2 million of HIV/AIDS deaths. The report was a wakeup call to the global health community, a bold statement reaffirming that more needs to be done collectively to eradicate this deadly, ancient disease that adversely affects the poorest people on the planet.

One revelation from the last two weeks that went perhaps less noticed, however, came from a recent London Assembly Health Committee report, Tackling TB in London. The report highlighted how some London boroughs have TB levels as high as 113 per 100,000. Allow me to put that figure into some perspective. A rate of 113 per 100,000 is significantly higher than the national averages in Rwanda, Iraq and Guatemala. These are three countries with respective Human Development Indices (HDI), a commonly used measurement of human development, of 0.506, 0.642 and 0.628. This is a far cry from the UK’s ‘very high human development’ rate of 0.892.

While the UK spends $3,600 dollars a year on the healthcare of each person in its population, Rwanda, Iraq and Guatemala spend $70, $305 and $223 respectively. So how is it that a third of the UK’s capital city remains a ‘high incidence’ area for TB according to the WHO? How is it that, for the last decade, London has assumed the dubious title of ‘TB capital of Western Europe’?

Well, the London Assembly’s report found that less than one in five (18%) Londoners are able to identify symptoms of TB, even when presented with a list. Further, over half of those surveyed for the report held the untrue belief that TB can be transmitted through spitting. Shockingly, almost 20% of respondents thought that TB can be transmitted through unprotected sex, whilst almost half admitted they would be worried if they had to tell their boss they had TB. If there is one thing we learned from the report, it was that more needs to be done to educate the people of London about the causes, symptoms and stigma surrounding TB.

Not surprisingly, the report’s key recommendation is a call on London Mayor, Boris Johnson, to team up with Public Health England and the charity sector to deliver a London-wide programme to educate the public about TB. Additionally, NHS London, according to the report, should set out how it intends to bring about universal vaccine coverage to every borough in the city by 2017. If headway can be made with both of these issues, alongside the host of other recommendations set out in the report, our city will be better equipped to tackle TB.

Here at RESULTS, we believe that TB, now the world’s deadliest infectious disease, has been ignored and side-lined for too long. The findings of the London Health Assembly’s survey suggest that this is even the case here in the world’s capital city. We need to do more to tackle TB, both here in London and worldwide. Watch out for our monthly action call on 1st December to see how you can get involved.

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