the 17th November..

The day before yesterday (17th November) was exactly 10 years since the idea behind Moxafrica first materialised so it was an important day for us. Interestingly, a couple of other important things also happened (beyond drinking some single malt whiskies to honour the occasion because it was single malt that originally kicked it all off).

Firstly, we got an email  the same day from a new friend (Fabio Diaz) who is committing to set up a moxa project in Angola - something which we intend to help him with as best we can. We're hoping that this will be an important new initiative - Angola as an immense TB problem with MDR-TB almost completely unaddressed.

Secondly, an edition of NAJOM landed on our door mat. NAJOM (the North American Journal of Oriental Medicine) has been a source of constant support to us, and they'd asked us for an article for their most recent edition which we did willingly  (submitting a piece developed around the fact that we were approaching our tenth anniversary). The piece began: 'By the time this edition of NAJOM is published, the original idea behind Moxafrica will be 10 years old'. Well it turned out to be exactly ten years old so was a nice coincidence!

But most importantly of all, a vital and potentially historic statement was released on this same day at the end of a special two day ministerial conference in Moscow (the first ever WHO Global Ministerial Conference devoted entirely to TB). Here's how it started out:

We, the Ministers of Health and from across Governments acknowledge that despite concerted efforts, tuberculosis (TB), including its drug-resistant forms, causes more deaths than any other infectious disease worldwide and is a serious threat to global health security.

TB kills more than five thousand children, women and men each day and leaves no country untouched. It is one of the leading killers among people of working age which creates and reinforces a cycle of ill-health and poverty, with potential catastrophic social and economic consequences for families, communities, and countries.

That's an accurate summary (though TB may well yet be shown to be killing more than 5,000 every day). Further on they made the following important statement:

We commit ourselves to ending TB ... and call upon other UN organizations and all partners, to provide the support necessary for success.

It's important for anyone reading this to be clear what this means. This doesn't just mean calling on the WHO to ramp up its efforts to end this plague (which it needs to do) and increasing the support from richer donor nations and the World Bank etc.: it means a sea change in the proportion of domestic funding that is currently allocated to national TB programmes by some of these self-same ministers who've made this commitment - and also requiring every possible effort from them to increase the proportion of their respective countries' gross domestic product that is spent on their own citizens' health.

But it means something for us all as well: it means that we as global citizens must hold these politicians to account if they fail in their commitment.


So our tenth anniversary was a big day in every respect - and we marked it by drinking a unique blend of Japanese and Scottish single malts to pay homage to the curious combination of east and west, north and south that is so fundamental in our endeavours. Whilst we know mixing these liquids in this way would give any self-respecting whisky buff paroxysms, we hope that it might gives any moxa buff reading this a reason to smile and maybe give cause raise a glass of your own filled with whatever might take your fancy in solidarity with our shared hopes and aspirations.


So what are we waiting for?

Yesterday we heard on the news that levels of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere were the highest they’ve been for 800,000 years (“persisting” at levels above 400 parts per million for the first time since well before anyone began recording anything on tablets of clay or any other medium, and also twice the age at which homo sapiens began leaving its mark on our world by burning fossil fuels).

Yesterday (though sadly not on the news – surprise, surprise…) we also learnt about the current state of play with tuberculosis with the release of the WHO’s annual Global TB Report (, and whilst levels of TB have certainly been recorded higher in previous centuries, we now have a new high of deadly drug-resistant TB that is still being shamefully ignored.


So (apart from their coincidental press releases) what do these two two media announcements have in common? Well it’s two things basically: one is that (for both issues) it really is ‘now or never’ if we want to see things change for the better; and the other is that the human suffering that is going to result from them both (unless drastic steps are taken) is going to bear down mercilessly on the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings – because with each of these two foaming horses of apocalypse working together it makes for a very frightening prospect indeed for the world’s poor.

So what does this new TB Report actually say?

Its wording is (as usual) muted: “Overall, the latest picture is one of a still high burden of disease, and progress that is not fast enough to reach targets or to make major headway in closing persistent gaps.” What this adds up to is pretty much the same appalling rates of new disease and of TB deaths as the year before – exactly at the point of time when both need to be dropping fast (in the first reported year of the post-2015 era). This is because a target has been set to see TB pretty much defeated in the next fifteen years. “Compared with the [2015] baseline”, warns Dr Lucica Ditiu (executive director of the Stop TB Partnership, “there is no progress.”

And please note that fifteen years, as far as the terms and conditions laid down on mankind by this very ancient enemy are concerned, is a very short time indeed.

She says she really doesn’t want to go over more of the numbers numbers – and nor do we because we’ve done that enough already. What Lucica wants us all to realise is that 2018 is “the year to make it or break it” – effectively to engender global engagement with this terrible disease or a far too small bunch of heroes will end up struggling on trying to minimise the carnage but essentially accepting defeat from a disease that has been almost entirely curable for nearly 70 years.

And of course exactly the same sort of sentiments apply to Climate Change. But what's interesting is that in both cases next year actually begins next month: for Climate Change it begins at a Climate Conference in Bonn on the 6th to the 17th of November,  and for TB at a Global Ministerial Meeting taking place in Moscow on the 16th and 17th. If we don’t see some action in the streets of both cities disturbing, not just the peace, but merely witness more of the same appalling political complacencies and empty soundbites that have dogged progress in both issues, then the world’s poor really are in very serious trouble indeed. In fact, as the descendants of those same human beings who honed their human ingenuities back in Africa 300,000 years ago we should surely  hang our collective heads in shame because we will once again have turned our heads away and in so doing taken our species not just to the brink but to a new and most appalling low.

As Dr Isaac Chikwanha (MSF’s Medical Advisor for TB, HIV and Hepatitis C) baldly put it yesterday in his own official response to yesterday’s Report – “What are we waiting for?”

Today is “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”.

It’s currently reckoned that we share our precious world with around 370 million human beings who are ethnologically designated as being ‘indigenous’. That's a lot of people – a number that’s a good 10% more than the population of the United States (which contains its own indigenous population of course), or a little over twice the population of Russia. Unfortunately the sort of bio-social support these diverse minorities deserve is astonishingly deficient, with one of the most significant deficiencies relating to their access to decent health care. What we know about their general health profiles, however, is enough to unequivocally state that these millions of indigenous peoples suffer much higher TB burdens than their non-indigenous counterparts. Thankfully the Stop TB Partnership has recently published an impressive (and truly shocking) document illustrating exactly this.

Here’s what the document had to say about these peoples by way of preamble:

These populations are among the world’s most marginalized, and … are also among the world’s poorest. This extreme poverty stems from multiple factors, including lack of access to education, forced displacement, loss of lands and resources, armed conflict, and the degradation of indigenous socio-political structures. Poverty and marginalization have served to establish a substantial gap in the achievement of multiple rights, including the right to health.

Of course poverty and gaps in health care mean higher levels of TB in any population, but there were some truly astonishing degrees of differences identified by Stop TB. What first shocked us were the names of some of the countries where much of the data that confirmed these shocking higher TB burdens came from. Some data came from India of course (where a third of the world’s TB is now believed to be festering and where indigenous poverty is truly appalling with indigenous people somehow surviving below a poverty line that is officially defined as being as little as US$0.30 a day. (This poverty line is calculated from an official rural one of c. 500 Rupees a month per person [‘Expert Group on Methodology for Estimation of Poverty’. Available from:]). But other data came from some of the richest countries on our planet – from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

So the first question we feel obliged to ask on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is this:

Why, when targets have been set for driving TB into the ground for nearly a quarter of a century, is there still such abject neglect of indigenous populations in four of the richest countries? Surely – if progress has ever been seriously intended to be seen anywhere – we should have seen it here in these wealthy countries, so why can't we see some evidence of this now?

Immediately below we list a few of these estimated differences. We offer them in alphabetical order simply because (given that the baseline comparative rates of national TB disease are so variable) it seems misleading to do otherwise:

Brazil (Amazon tribes) – TB that is at least 20 times higher than rates of TB in the general population.

Canada (Inuit) – 156 times higher (yes, you read that right: one hundred and fifty-six times higher).

Equador (Chine) – 41 times higher.

India (forest peoples) – 17 times higher.

 New Zealand (Maori) – 14 times higher.

Paraguay (Aches peoples) – 75 times higher.

U.S.A. (native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders) – 23 times higher.

None of these comparative rates are insignificant, in fact not one of them is even remotely reasonable given that TB is in most cases a curable disease. Surely a rate that might be only twice as high as the rest of the population would still deserve identifying today. Stop TB rightly states that these numbers confirm something awful - amounting to the systematic neglect indigenous peoples have experienced globally in terms of their health. They also list its cause as being down to systematic racism and discrimination, lack of registration/citizenship, and the inability to access health insurance or receive key primary care services.

So, today on Indigenous Peoples’ Day we call on the UN and on all the health ministries of the world to do something about this.

But we also ask a challenging question of ourselves, which is this:

What can we ourselves do about it?

Well, here is our immediate (but far from final) answer to help honour this day:-

Article 24 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stipulates the right of indigenous peoples to “traditional medicines and their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals” . Of course, this right is primarily intended to protect such peoples’ own indigenous traditional resources, but given our own current experiences we can’t avoid wondering – might this Article also apply to a traditional resource from another culture entirely that has little need of it now?

 In other words, how might moxa (as it was traditionally used in Japan for the treatment of tuberculosis) fit into this complex multi-ethnic picture?

Given that we know how low-tech and adaptable small-cone moxa is as a therapy, we wonder whether it might fit in quite helpfully.

 Of course there are some very serious issues to consider here (ones that are quite independent of the key issue of efficacy). If we assume for a minute that moxa might be of help, we wonder exactly how a transplantation of a traditional therapy from one culture (that is now highly developed) into any completely different one might be most appropriately facilitated. Indeed, we also wonder how could it be done in ways which avoid justifiable suspicions or reluctance on behalf of populations who have experienced discrimination, scientific experimentation, forced sterilization and grossly unequal distribution of power in the delivery of health services? (And - let’s not pussy foot around this - also in too many instances full-blown genocide as well).  In effect, how might moxa be most usefully re-indigenised into a new culture?

But might the act of idigenising moxa in any case do these peoples a fundamental disservice by somehow implying that they deserve what might be judged by some to be a second class intervention when in fact what they really deserve is the same as the rest of us? These are certainly thorny questions to consider, but with the results of the Ugandan RCT under our belt and ongoing promising research in DPRK (two massively different countries culturally) we now feel bold enough to consider them in a public domain.

We thank Stop TB for its document because, apart from properly identifying something awful, it also clarifies things for us: specifically it homes in on the role of traditional healers in these communities and states categorically that  they must play a key part in any effective future response to these intra-national lethal ethnologically-distinct epidemics. The Partnership sees a part of any solution as involving a collaboration between traditional healers and national TB programmes [that] should be encouraged in order to boost diagnosis and treatment among indigenous populations. In other words the involvement of traditional healers is seen to be vital. There have previously been understandable concerns expressed amongst the biomedical status quo that such an inclusive policy would risk derailing any effectively managed TB program because it might blur medical paradigms (with the obvious risk of TB of stoking drug-resistance in the process if this isn’t done well) but Stop TB has an answer to this:

Additional evidence has shown that indigenous peoples can successfully balance traditional interventions and formal TB treatment[1]; furthermore, supportive TB treatment delivered by traditional healers can positively influence both treatment outcomes and other aspects of the treatment experience.[2][3]

 Please note the word ‘supportive’, because we have only ever identified the potential of moxa for TB as being an adjunctive treatment for TB (i.e. for use alongside existing drugs as an immuno-modulatory agent that might help recovery). In fact the only instance in which we believe it should be considered at all for use without approved drugs would be in the case of programmatically incurable disease.

So how might moxa be introduced as a supportive tool? Well our first answer is not from ‘the top down’, and Stop TB is clear about this as well:

Considering the reliance on traditional medicine and the effectiveness of collaborating with traditional healers to address TB in some settings, the involvement of indigenous communities in the design and implementation of TB interventions cannot be undermined.

We’d go further than this and say that the importance of the involvement of indigenous communities in the design and implementation of TB interventions in their own settings cannot be underestimated.

But there are also complex practical realities to consider here, and they're ones which surely give us further food for thought. Many indigenous peoples are largely nomadic. In Ethiopia, for instance, as many as 12 million Afar people are pastoralists who range from grazing sites to grazing sites following their animals making it a huge challenge for them to be supported by any TB program. In Namibia the San people embark on long hunting expeditions that interrupt  their TB treatment, something that’s been identified as causing community MDR-TB. To complicate this, both of these peoples are now living on the front line of Climate Change - experiencing new environmental stresses in already extreme conditions which are having direct negative effect on both  their community and individual resiliences against infectious disease.

 There are of course no simple answers to this, and we don’t want to pretend that there might be, but we do feel that it is time for us as a charity to more actively explore these sorts of issues. Stop TB, for instance, insist that community input needs to be be key to developing solutions for addressing issues of early diagnosis, medication adherence and other common issues in the successful treatment of TB. Otherwise, as the document very soberly observes such solutions risk being unsuccessful. One thing we know for sure is that any options should also closely note Stop TB’s own conclusion that it can only be  indigenous-run and indigenous-staffed care, or at minimum care informed by the indigenous communities themselves, [that can] overcome the current disparities in TB diagnosis and treatment.

 We close this blog by inviting engagement or comment from anyone anywhere. We would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading and in the meantime we wish you a Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!


[1] Gianella C, Ugarte-Gil C, Caro G, Aylas R, Castro C, Lema C. TB in vulnerable populations: the case of an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon. Health and Human Rights Journal. 2016;18(1) (https://www.

[2] Colvin M, Gumede L, Grimwade K, Maher D, Wilkinson D. Contribution of traditional healers to a rural tuberculosis control programme in Hlabisa, South Africa. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 2003;7(9 Suppl 1):S86–91.

[3] Madamombe I. Traditional healers boost primary health care: reaching patients missed by modern medicine. Africa Renewal Online. January 2006 (http://www., accessed 3 March 2017).

“We have to start winning wars again!” (Donald Trump, March 1st 2017)

Right now this rather grotesque hankering towards winning wars seems to add up to hiking U.S. military spending (probably safest not to call it ‘defence’ spending any more) by a mind-boggling $54 billion and to slashing pretty much the same amount from non-defence spending (including stopping all payments to UN programs and Climate Change). What this means is slashing the budget for the U.S. State Department by 28% (taking just over $11 billion out of its budget) - and by ‘State Department’ please potentially read 'USAID', the agency that supports global tuberculosis control because it comes under State Department governance. Oh yes, and winning wars also means cutting $650 million of support to the World Bank that also supports anti-tuberculosis programmes.

So this looks to be pretty bad news for tuberculosis control – in fact it could possibly be really bad news – although things don’t seem to be quite so bad for HIV/AIDS because support for PEPFAR is so far being ring-fenced. It’s bad news for TB for at least two reasons: one is because according to TAG (the independent think-tank Treatment Action Group) funding for TB R&D is already only totalling a third of what’s needed to see the post 2015 TB Targets met; the second it's because as long as ‘America First’ is the watchword then any resultant policy is inevitably going to result in increased global poverty, poorer health and malnutrition and geopolitical stress, all of which are unquestionably going to stoke the TB pandemic.

U.S. support (i.e. congressional appropriations ) for global TB efforts had actually already peaked back in 2012 anyway (at $256 million), reducing to $240 million and flat-lining since. This was already worrying enough, but it now looks like it's going to reduce again just at the moment everyone agrees a huge investment needs to be made.

We should at least all be grateful that the U.S. has been the largest donor to the Global Fund since its inception (providing roughly a third of all money donated – a generosity which must surely be sticking in the throat of those currently occupying the White House) and it's also been one of the largest donors to the Global Drug Facility (that provides grants to countries for TB drugs through the auspices of the Stop TB Partnership). In a nutshell, global TB control has been and still is is massively dependant on U.S. goodwill: the Global Fund provides 60% of TB international assistance for instance (so a full 20% of international assistance comes from the U.S.), with the country providing another one fifth of assistance directly.

here’s a massive amount at risk here.

Well next year, 2018, most probably in October, there is going to be a High Level Meeting (HLM) at the UN in New York devoted to tuberculosis. Doubtless this won’t be showing in the Presidential diary (that is if Trump is still in office then) since he'll know that he won’t be impressing his supporters much if he attends – but it will still be happening on American soil. Knowing the positive difference that American activism made in the war against HIV, let’s hope we’ll be witnessing that same of the same feisty humanity  out there on the streets of New York City when the HLM is convened.

This meeting has been an awful long time coming, but (whether or not he attends) we have a message for the President anyway:

“You want to start winning wars again Mr President? Well so do we, Mr Trump – and the war we have to start winning is this war against TB again - NOW!”

The Indian Factor (part 2) and prevalence surveys...

We think that we’ve already made the point in these blogs that moving the goal posts (or indeed not moving them depending on how the picture is being rigged), using moving benchmarks neat-sounding soundbites or exploiting small print in reports is making TB data very difficult indeed for either the TB stakeholder, the  harried journalist (or even the expert at TB Alliance or MSF) - in fact for any of us for that matter to understand. It’s certainly hard to properly evaluate.

So how much of this data that we’re presented with is yet really that solid? All we feel qualified to say on the matter is that the better the national or regional prevalence survey, the more solid must be the resultant estimate. Unfortunately it’s sometimes been the case that such better surveillance reveals more disease than was hitherto believed to exist (this certainly hasn’t always been the case – though of the 18 countries that were identified in the 2016 Global Report as having had prevalence surveys conducted only one, Gambia, reported significantly less than was previously estimated and five reported significantly more, Lao, Indonesia, Tanzania and Ghana[1]). It has to be noted, however, that on occasion it’s revealed not just more disease, but an awful lot more of it. But while such a revelation might be terrible it surely does add much needed solidity to our understandings of the state of tuberculosis today and what’s really needed to defeat it.

China in 2011

Six years ago. the 2011 Report offered evidence of how the global burden of disease could be re-estimated downwards in terms of both incidence and death rates, and not upwards. This  followed new data gleaned from “consultations” with a number of countries during the previous year, mainly data from China (though it didn’t in this instance include a national prevalence survey). The dramatic reductions in TB cases and deaths which China reported that year were still taken very seriously in Geneva, however, something which had a positive impact on the whole global picture simply because of the proportionate size of China’s population. As a consequence the 2011 Report was able to retrospectively conclude that the number of incident cases had actually been falling since 2006 (rather than still rising slowly as was believed to be the case up until that year). So the graphs were redrawn, something which must have given cause for a sigh of relief in Geneva because this included the estimate of the annual number of deaths which was revised downwards as well. (It had been 1.7 million in the previous Report and dropped to 1.45 million which incidentally is actually the lowest it’s ever been reported to have been to date).


A prevalence survey conducted in 2011 revealed a prevalence:notification ratio of 3:1 though oddly this wasn’t interpreted as meaning that the estimated prevalence or incidence rates needed much adjustment.


Unfortunately another report soon really upset the numbers however. This was a national prevalence survey which was conducted in Nigeria in 2012. It was a survey that tested random individuals at carefully selected locations across the country and then analysed the results to extrapolate the estimated national prevalence rate.  What was concluded was that the total number of Nigerian TB cases (by being identified as being sputum positive) was five times higher than the number of cases that were being notified in Nigeria that year. That was pretty terrifying but actually it was worse because about half of all cases that had been notified into the Nigerian TB program that year weren’t even sputum positive anyway (but had been diagnosed based on symptoms or X-rays). In other words, directly comparing the number of cases that were found sputum positive against confirmed sputum positive cases who’d been notified to the TB program suggested that it was even possible that there was as much as ten times more sputum positive TB in the country in 2012 than was being notified and treated that same year – and of course sputum positive cases can generally be expected to be infectious. 

Of course, there inevitably had to be an awful lot more TB deaths as well, and this couldn’t possibly have only applied in isolation to 2012 either: it logically must been happening in the years before then as well. Furthermore it could hardly be denied that such an immense under-estimation of disease (one that had been being made by so-called ‘experts’) might also be typical of other countries in the same region as well.

Adjustments had to me made to the Nigerian estimates as a result: in the next Report its prevalence rate was ramped up by 100%, incidence rate by 200%, and the death rate by 400% with these rates in turn having a consequential impact on both regional and global numbers. The case detection rate, meanwhile, was reduced to less than a third of what it had been, to a quite appalling 15% (the goal for 2010 is 90%). Were these all fair adjustments to have made? The answer is that we don’t know and never will.


Something more dramatic was revealed more recently in Indonesia where another prevalence survey also reported far more TB than had been hitherto estimated. The burden of TB in Indonesia was found to be “much higher than previously thought” resulting in an upward incidence rate revision of 403/100,000 (instead of 188/100,000) adding an extra half a million new cases to the 2015 Global Report and seeing a collapse of the Indonesian case detection rate from 72% to a quite terrible 32%. Once again, the expert opinion had got things terrifyingly wrong. And like Nigeria and China, Indonesia is a very populous country, so anomalies here also inevitably had impact on global estimates.


On March 24th this year (World TB Day) the Kenyan government released the results of their own national prevalence survey that they'd done on TB across the country. The survey reported a prevalence rate of 558/100,000 whilst the most recent reported official estimate was 266/100,000 (as had been published in the 2015 Global Report) - i.e. almost half what the survey found. This suggests that there's pretty much twice as much TB as previously reckoned to be out there in Kenya. (For reasons that we can’t really fathom and we may blog on in due course, the Global Reports now no longer include estimates of prevalence. This seems to us to be a shortcoming which should be being questioned since it will make future prevalence studies very difficult to assess against official incidence estimates.)  Whatever, this survey also meant that the country’s case detection rate had to be slashed by a quarter meaning that there must be a lot more untreated infectious TB out there in the country each year.


…and India (where a national prevalence survey has never been done but is being carried out this year..

As we’ve blogged before, in this latest report it’s been India which is finally beginning to come under the microscope. As with Nigeria and Indonesia, because of new data (a regional prevalence survey in the state of Gujerat) the number of cases of TB for the country has been revised significantly upwards, which in turn has meant that the number of deaths have had to be revised upwards as well. In many ways India is far less typical of the other countries in the same region than perhaps Nigeria or Tanzania may be, but the proportion of TB cases in India was already so huge in terms of the total global burden that the numbers of regional and global new cases (as well as the number of estimated global deaths) have been consequentially significantly hiked in this latest Report as well. It’s realised, for instance, that at least an extra million cases are being missed from being properly treated – and it looks like they must also almost all be in India. The same applies for the extra annual 300,000 deaths that have retrospectively materialised – hence that telling statement in the most recent Report that “the TB epidemic is larger than previously estimated” while at the same time it’s still paradoxically claimed that the slow downward trends in reductions in both TB deaths and disease are “much the same as previous”.

As we identified in Part 1 of this blog on India, in this most recent Report the numbers for India have been hiked following “accumulating evidence that previous estimates were too low”. As we discussed in Part 1 as well, it looks highly likely that this picture is going to get worse after India completes its first national TB prevalence survey in 2018.

In fact the picture that is finally emerging (which is really of no surprise to many) is that TB control in India is in real trouble. Not only are the numbers looking to be dramatically higher than was being reported, but rates of DR-TB are frightening as well – something that is easily explained by the way that drugs are prescribed in the country. The bottom line is that India, without any doubt at all, needs to get its act together in terms of TB control.

Well just three months ago in February the Government of India announced what it’s going to do about this: quite simply it plans to eliminate TB in the country by 2025 – a quite astonishing announcement that was made as part of the country’s Union Budget address.[2]

We immediately wondered how on earth India’s government could really conceive this to be any sort of possibility because what they’re essentially saying is that they intend to beat the rest of the world in this endeavour by a decade (and the global targets are already ambitious enough!). Well we soon came across an interesting article in the BMJ which spelled out some rather basic suggestions as to what they need to do at least to set the wheels in motion.[3]   

Here are some of the article’s main suggestions. (We very seriously suggest that you don’t have anything in your mouth as you review them because you may well find yourself choking in disbelief):

1. India needs to give priority to and begin investing in health.

2. The budget for India's Revised National TB Control Program (RNTCP) … needs to see an increase.

3. India must start to seriously tackle key determinants of TB, especially poverty, undernutrition and tobacco smoking.

4. India must address the major gaps that have already been identified in the TB cascade of care in the public system. 

 In other words it’s the blindingly bloody obvious that’s needed even to begin to kick off this campaign - the same blindingly bloody obvious that’s been lacking for decades. But even more beyond belief is some of the background for this dire situation that the finance minister reckons can be resolved in just seven years (which is a blink of an eye in the world of TB).

Up until January 23rd this year the recommended way of treating TB in India was to give the patients doses of their TB drugs three times each week. So what about that ‘D’ in DOTS (the WHO approved regimen that’s been the backbone of the global response to TB for twenty years)? That ‘D’ doesn’t stand for ‘daily’ but it does stand for directly observed which is meant to occur on a daily basis... Oddly that didn’t seem to matter to the Indian TB program until January this year because it was going to cost more and India’s national spend on the health of its citizens has been so frighteningly low.

There’s a very good reason, of course, for that daily directly observed dosing (which is why it’s so extraordinary that international pressure hadn’t been effectively applied before this to the Indian TB programme to get into line with the rest of the world): it’s to ensure that the patients take their drugs in a way that stands the most chance of eradicating the pathogen by putting consistent pressure on it, and most particularly that doesn’t allow it regular windows of reduced pressure in which to develop resistance. Unfortunately there’s every probability that the Indian three-day-a-week regimen has been doing exactly this – allowing the bacteria windows of opportunity to survive the assaults against them – and that it’s been doing so on a truly colossal scale.

But back to January 23rd for a moment: this was the day that the Indian Supreme Court directed that the nine months long regimen of giving patients three dosages of their drugs a week should ‘as far as possible’ be replaced with daily doses.[4] The case that was being adjudged in the Court that day had been filed by TB specialist Dr Raman Kakkar who had called the three-times-a-week protocol both ‘unscientific’ and ‘improper’, saying that it was only there to cut costs. Furthermore he stated that it both promoted relapses and generated drug-resistance in the patients’ bacteria, doing so by quoting numbers that were truly frightening – India’s TB patients have a quite terrifying 10% relapse rate as against a 3% global rate.

Well a few weeks ago the Indian Health Minister J.P.Nadda weighed in behind the governement’s Finance Minister announcing that India has formulated a “national strategic plan” with a special focus on stamping out the disease at “grass-root levels”.[5] “We have implemented daily drug regimen for treating tuberculosis (TB) in five states”, he said “and by the year end it will be rolled out in the entire country.”  Wow! That adds up to daily DOTS, the program that’s been the cornerstone of global TB policy for decades. Talk about ramping things up at grass roots levels…

But there’s actually worse still in the existing pipeline because when those 10% of Indian patients relapse the vast majority (if treated further at all) are put on the infamous Category II treatment. This is a regimen that really should have been internationally banned by now because it’s widely accepted that it has the potential to promote further drug-resistance by only introducing one new drug (streptomycin) into what’s already a failing regimen (when at least two should be added). That’s bad enough but in India the‘strepto’ is only administered three times a week as well (it has to be injected) when it should also be being administered daily – which means (wait for it..) that these multitude of relapsed patients get only 24 doses when elsewhere in the world (i.e. wherever Category II is still unfortunately being administered) they get 60 of them.

Is it surprising that India has so many relapsed cases, and furthermore is it surprising that it has so much drug-resistance emerging? The answer of course is ‘no’.

Arun Jaitley, the Indian finance minister, may have grandly proclaimed how TB was going to be eliminated in India by 2025 in his February budget speech, but he didn’t exactly explain how this was going to happen and Health Minister Nadda’s optimistic announcement doesn’t get anywhere near explaining it either. There have been strong hints that the health budget will be hiked, but one analysis of the country’s health budget has shown that most of the increase isn’t even going to be spent on India’s principle health priorities (many of which are facing funding cuts).[6] In fact allowing for purchasing power parity it even seems possible that the funds available for TB control may end up being even lower than they are currently just when they need to be dramatically increased.

Let’s put this in perspective for a minute: Indian government expenditure on healthcare has been among the lowest in the word (at 1.4% of GDP).  It’s now being said that this percentage is going to be hiked up to 2.5%. Time will tell if this happens – but it’s worth bearing in mind that high-income countries spend as much as 15% of GDP on healthcare. Even amongst similar BRICS economies, India’s spending is poor. According to World Bank data, in 2013 India spent 1.3% of its GDP [7]on the public health sector; by contrast, Brazil spent 4.7%, China 3.1%, and South Africa 4.3%.

So what is going to happen to TB control in India – the country that probably has one in three of the world’s TB cases within its borders and has such a dysfunctional TB program that needs massive re-organisation? Well something truly massive needs to change or it’s going to be more of the same with more and more drug-resistance thrown in to make it all a whole heap worse and millions more will die from a disease which is still (when it's not drug-resistant) cheap to treat and curable.

We’re sure some citizens of this great nation will disagree with our analysis and might even feel offended on behalf of its democracy given that we’re choosing to be so critical of the nation’s elected leaders, but as playwright Lillian Hellman once said: “Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”.


[2] Kumar S. Winners and losers in India's science budget. Science 2017.





[7] The World Bank (2013). World Development Index Online Database, The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA.

A new director general of the World Health Organisation

We quote here in full the Stop TB Partnership Announcement - 24 May 2017:

Stop TB Partnership congratulates Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on his appointment as new WHO Director-General: the leader we need to end TB


Dr Tedros with the 'End TB' logo

Dr Tedros with the 'End TB' logo

24 May 2017 – Geneva, Switzerland – WHO Member States yesterday elected Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Dr Tedros) to serve as its next Director-General. For the first time in its history, its new Director-General was elected through a direct, but secret vote at the World Health Assembly. This election was exceptional, both procedurally but also politically as WHO Member States made one of the most critical appointments for current global health agenda, affecting the seven billion people in the world.

Dr Tedros served as Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012 and is credited for innovative reforms to the health delivery system of a resource-poor country. Later on, he was appointed minister of foreign affairs from 2012-2016, a position which give him valuable diplomatic experience. Dr Tedros has also previously served as Chair of the Global Fund Board, Chair of the Programme Coordinating Board for UNAIDS, Chair of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.

In his final pitch for why he should lead WHO, Dr Tedros emphasized his experience as Ethiopia’s health minister, overseeing the expansion of basic health services across the country. In six years, he oversaw the building of more than 16,000 health posts, 3,000 health centers, and deployed more than 40,000 female health extension workers. This innovative work done under his leadership was further supported by several of the Stop TB Partnership’s TB REACH initiative’s work in accelerating active case finding in Ethiopia, in partnership with LSHTM.

Dr Tedros has also promised that transparency will be at the heart of the WHO once he takes charge.

In September 2016, Dr. Tedros addressed the Stop TB Partnership Coordinating Board in New York where he delivered a very strong message, committing to work with the Stop TB Partnership towards ending TB.

Dr Tedros flanked by Joanne Carter of and Lucica Ditiu of Stop TB

Dr Tedros flanked by Joanne Carter of and Lucica Ditiu of Stop TB

Welcoming his appointment, Dr Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership said, “A new era begins for WHO. Dr. Tedros will be leading the organization for at least the next five years and I hope and dream for many successes and achievements. I expect these years to be the ‘hottest’ in the TB world as we must see accelerated efforts in scaling up efforts, significant decreases in  TB epidemiology and a huge increase in numbers of  lives saved.

As we both promised in front of our Stop TB Board, the Partnership and WHO will work hand in hand and support each other in an enhanced, collaborative and transparent manner starting from day one of the transition period for Dr Tedros. We will do it, and we will end TB together.”

Dr Tedros will start his new term on 1 July 2017.

The Indian Factor (Part 1) or “a plea to the World Health Assembly and to the new Director General of the WHO”

We’re now 24 years into a Global Emergency (one which the WHO originally proclaimed in 1993) and  it's clear that it’s feared that the true scale of the pandemic is still far from fully revealed.[1] This is particularly important to appreciate at this point of time because we’re now already into the second year of the first period set for the post-2015 targets that were set by the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 2014. Everyone’s intention and attention are rightly now focused on ‘bending the curves’ of the disease downwards so that the disease can be defeated in the next twenty years (by 2035) which is a wonderful goal – but we’re very seriously wondering how this projected curve can even be usefully monitored if the estimated numbers are being intermittently re-adjusted upwards as they have been. This may be an unavoidable process because of the continuing uncertainties about the true scale of the pandemic and because of fresh intelligence, but we think we should all face up to the reality that this hodge-podge way of presenting prigress risks shaking confidence in what’s being told us each year in the WHO Reports.

We’ve already published our own analysis of some important WHO numbers that are unfortunately incoherent.[2] (And heaven forbid, the curve might even prove in the coming years not even to have been going down at all...).

This month has seen the election of a new Director General by the same World Health Assembly. We’re desperately hoping that Dr Tedros will find two big files (one entitled ‘tuberculosis’ and the other ‘drug-resistant tuberculosis’) at the top of his in-tray once he gets down to the job of establishing his priorities because the last 24 years of this Global Emergency really can’t be called any sort of success and there’s a mountain of catching up to do.

The difficulties with the changing data

It’s interesting to compare the statistical challenges of monitoring tuberculosis with that of the monitoring of Climate Change. TB and Climate Change have much in common: both are largely invisible slow-burning phenomena, both threaten the world’s poor and both are abysmally lacking in any sort of global leadership which invites political complacency on both issues. But there’s also one huge difference – which is in how progress (or lack of it) in terms of global response can be monitored in each. If we need, for example, to compare parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 1990 to what it was in 2015 and what it is hoped to be (say) in 2025, we can confidently rely on finite scientifically-measured measurements to do so. If we want to compare mean global temperatures the same thing applies. Unfortunately, however, we still aren’t anywhere near having these sorts of definitive measurements yet for tuberculosis: all we have are estimates that are calculated by so-called experts which time and time again are being proved to be wrong and need retrospective re-adjustments.

It’s a discomforting fact, for instance, that the post-2015 TB targets were set three years ago when both the estimated scale and the rates of disease were estimated as being significantly less than what they’ve been pegged at in the most recent 2016 Global Report.  (In this last Report the number of annual new cases was estimated to be 10.4 million and the number of annual deaths 1.8 million; when the WHA approved the post-2015 strategy there were believed to be 8.6 annual new cases and 1.3 million deaths and the numbers were going downwards). In fact this last Report even those numbers for the year that the WHO approved their Plan (2014) have had to be retrospectively adjusted upwards as a consequence – we now know that there should have been nearer 11 million new cases reported that year, and nearer 2 million deaths. We’re really not talking of small differences here: we’re talking of differences of nearly 30%.

Well one of the new post-2015 targets that was set three years ago is to find and treat 90% of those infected with tuberculosis by 2020. One problem with this, of course, is that we’re not even sure yet (2 years into the 5-year period) how many this might be! When the target was set in 2014 it meant finding two and a half million more cases in the following six years and seeing them put on treatment (as if that wasn’t going to be hard enough). As of this last Report, however, there are now thought to be nearly another million  missing people to find and treat. And we don’t have six years now to find them: they must to be found in the next three. (And even more concerning, as we’ll see below, there are actually possible a million more still to find as well).

If the good people who signed up to those targets in Geneva in 2014 had these current numbers to consider back then, would they have been quite so comfortable with them before retiring to their drinks and canapes to celebrate? Sure they’re largely aspirational (though we hardly think that that’s such a comforting thought for the sickening folk in the slums and flavellas to contemplate) but we’re increasingly wondering how many of them realised at all at the time how these numbers (and baselines) are so subject to re-adjustment and that they might even move upwards even as the trends are supposedly still going down. (We say this because the 2016 Report so strongly suggests that we’ll see them go even higher)

Jennifer Kates, the director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, confirms how these TB numbers can so easily confuse – in fact how they can even become more confusing the more effort is made to ramp up the accuracy of the tracking of the disease. "Newer methods, better data, and so on, yield better estimates and that sometimes makes understanding the trends and messaging about them much harder,” she suggests. Lucica Ditiu, the executive director of the Stop TB Partnership is more explicit: “The yearly revised TB burden makes it very difficult for the TB community to run after this moving target in a meaningful way. It is time,” she says, “to seriously look over the data we have, and maybe more importantly, data we do not have.” (We have to wonder whether she is just talking about the numbers that are now estimated to be being completely missed [about 40% of the total pandemic or a quite appalling 4.3 million individuals] or does this mean that she believes some data is being held back for reasons of expediency ?)

We’d certainly add something more of our own to these observations – surely, when there are newer methods and better data then the trends and the messaging should become easier to understand, not harder, shouldn’t they? And in any case, could we also ask the elephant in the room of a question as to exactly how the 2015 baselines are actually going to be pegged (it is 2017 now after all) – because as far as we can see some of them can’t be. The unfortunate reality is that because some targets relate to finite numbers, they simply can’t be set until the end of each monitoring period when they can be pegged retrospectively (i.e. in 2020, 2025, 2030 and 2035). This may sound crazy, but when data is still emerging and is being retrospectively applied this is the crazy world of tuberculosis contro.

The new Indian numbers and what they mean

In this latest report India has finally come under the microscope and it’s been an awfully long time coming…

Because of “new data” the number of cases of TB for the country has been revised upwards. In turn, this has meant that the number of deaths has had to be revised upwards as well. Since India already accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s TB cases and deaths these revisions have inevitably had major impact on global estimates. It looks, for instance, like almost all of the 800,000 extra estimated annual cases that appeared in the last Report must have been Indian, and that the same must apply to those extra 300,000 annual deaths. It’s this Indian factor therefore that largely explains the Report’s paradoxical statement that “the TB epidemic is larger than previously estimated” while at the same time it was still being claimed that the trends in reductions in both death and disease are much the same as previous.

In this current Report you can see that the numbers for India have been hiked (or to put it more formally they’ve been “revised for the period 2000-2015” following “accumulating evidence that previous estimates were too low”). This evidence apparently included household surveys, a new analysis of mortality data – but most significantly it involved a single state-wide TB prevalence survey and two studies of anti-TB drug sales in both pharmacies and the Indian private sector.

We’ve picked this “accumulating evidence” apart a little to try and work out what it might add up to, and in doing so we’ve realised that it’s very clearly feared that we have similar hikes down the line.

The first of this “accumulating evidence” was a study of drug-sales in the private sector. We know that this study set alarm bells ringing for many when it was first published – it’s something that we’ve blogged on before.[3] What the authors of this paper suggested was that, even when they applied their data conservatively, there might be 3.6 million annual incident cases of TB in India instead of the 2.2 million that was entered against the country in the previous 2015 Report (i.e. 80% more new cases of TB each year with about half of the entire Indian cohort never seeing approved treatment).  What this also meant was that India might not account for a quarter of the world’s TB cases – it might account for a third of them, something which should be a very terrifying thought for those living in that beautiful country, and a truly shameful one for those responsible for the nation’s health.

The implications of the state prevalence survey of Gujerat

But it was a state prevalence survey that allowed the hike to be registered in the Report. This survey was carried out in Gujarat and is apparently the only state-wide prevalence survey that’s used WHO-approved methods that’s ever been conducted in India. One thing has been really troubling us since we first read about it, though: while the survey was conducted back in 2011, its results were only “shared” with the WHO in 2015, suggesting that its contents might have been sat on for a period of time for reasons which may well not be healthy ones. According to the hikes in this latest (2016) Report, in this three year period about a million more Indians must have died from TB away from the radar than were believed to be. That’s an extremely sobering thought.

The results of this state survey indicate a Gujerati state-wide TB prevalence of 390/100,000 – a full 56% higher than the most recent national prevalence estimate for India (of 250/100,000 which had been published in the 2015 Report – unfortunately the Global Reports now no longer include prevalence estimated, something which to us seems quite incredible).

In the end it seems to have been decided in Geneva that the best way of incorporating this significant sub-national survey data into the national estimates for India was to accept that it would be highly unlikely that the national prevalence rate for India in 2015 could be less than what had been surveyed in 2011 in Gujarat and the most intelligent thing was to assume for now that they might be much the same. As a consequence the current national incidence rate  was hiked from 2.2 to 2.8 million (not even half way towards the possible 3.6 million suggested by that drug-sales survey), and mortality was hiked by by 120% because of the anticipated high fatality rate of those cases who must never have seen proper treatment). Of course we all know that epidemiology isn’t quite that simple, but these hikes were clearly deemed expedient given the Gujerati state prevalence survey but (as the WHO carefully added as a qualification in its last Report) these new rates are in any case only “interim”.

This “interim” nature of the estimated scalee of TB in India plainly betrays fear that these hikes may well not yet fully reflect Indian realities. This is because, as the Report itself notes: “Gujarat is among the wealthiest states in India, and given the link between overall levels of income and the burden of TB disease it seems unlikely that TB prevalence in Gujarat would be higher than the national average.” In other words it’s more probable that the numbers which might emerge from any national survey could be even higher.

If this is so it’s unavoidable that the global burden of disease for 2015 will have to be retrospectively reported to have once again been “larger than previously estimated” in future Reports – i.e. even more than what’s been estimated in the most recent one. And inevitably, if such hikes occur, then they will most probably first appear in one of the annual Reports which will be published in the immediate run up to the first 2020 way-marker of the post-2015 Plan for TB – the plan which intends to see the disease defeated in the next twenty years. In other words the 2015 baseline numbers for the new targets are most probably going to have to be re-adjusted upwards from what they were estimated for 2015 in the last Report – something that will be happening well after the targets were initially set. Is this any way to run a set of targets against the world’s biggest infectious killer?

We think that this should all be being highlighted not just for the new DG but also for the members of the World Health Assembly. We can’t help but observe that these numerical adjustment can’t realistically be expected to appear until after 2018 (which is the year when India’s first national TB prevalence survey is finally due to be completed) but more probably later still. Is anyone in Geneva bothered by what this might mean? (We’re sure they are, incidentally). Especially because (in contrast to the 2015 targets which were rates of disease – i.e. number of cases per 100,000 population) some of the current targets that are set for the post-2015 period are now absolute numerical ones.

The target for deaths for 2020 is a percentage reduction in the absolute number of TB deaths (compared with the 2015 baseline) of 35%. This percentage reduction is then intended to increase to 75% five years later (for 2025), then ramp up to 90% by 2030, and finally to 95% by 2035. If the baseline is initially set at 1.8 million deaths (i.e. the current estimate for 2015 as published in the 2016 Report) this means that it’s intended to see 630,000 fewer deaths (or less than 1.2 million) occurring during 2020. (It’s worth bearing in mind, incidentally, that this number isn’t actually that far off the number that was actually believed to be dying annually when these targets were initially set! Back then there were only believed to have been 1.3 million annual deaths – though in the Kafka-esque world of TB reporting they’ve been retrospectively been re-adjusted the most recent Report to around 2 million!).

We think that every informed TB stakeholder should now be alert to the fact that the new national data from India is actually only going to first show up in a Global Report in 2019 at the earliest (i.e. the year after the prevalence survey is completed) or worse still in 2020. This latter date is especially sensitive because it also happens to be the very year of the first way-marker for the post-2015 targets. (But if the time taken to “share” the results from Gujarat are anything to go by, they might even not show up in a Global Report until 2022, seven years down the road of the target period!) Obviously if the numbers then show any sort of difference to those published in this latest Report there’ll need to be further significant retro-calculations which will inevitably include re-adjustments to the baselines, something which will make monitoring these targets almost impossible. This really can’t be the best way to be taking on the world’s most lethal infectious disease can it?

If the numbers then prove to be higher (as seems probable) then it’s reasonable to expect significant consternation among TB stakeholders (especially in India). We’re also now thinking about those admirable parliamentarians who are increasingly coming aboard who may find themselves very seriously confused. It naturally also risks creating confusions in the media which has proved itself to easily pick up the wrong scent with TB, but will also cause despair among respected comrades and colleagues who are already well versed in the intricacies of these Reports. What it might mean to those signatories (i.e. the representatives of health ministries of the WHO member nations) who signed up to the targets at the World Health Assembly in 2014 when the annual death toll was estimated to be so much less is anyone’s guess. But what it will mean to those millions caught  in the headlights of this disease is that it will be business as usual with far too many dying.

What this might add up to...

We’ve very roughly reviewed what could happen to the 2015 numbers in the 2020 Report if the extrapolations from the Indian national prevalence survey end up revealing numbers similar to those suggested by that drug-sales survey. In this case a further 300,000 (or more) may need to be retrospectively added on to that 2015 mortality baseline. This means, dear God, that the global death-toll for 2015 will have to be re-calculated to be 2.1 million and not the 1.8 million that is estimated in the 2016 Report. This is a terrifyingly long way from the 1.3 million that looked to be the worst case baseline when the targets were initially set in 2014 (50% more).

Does this all make sense? Are we way off here? We don’t think so. Of course these targets were always largely aspirational ones, but can these curves really be forced anywhere near 35% in the next five years when some of them (particularly the one of 'absolute number of deaths') have been rising in the last five?

Have we really got that much catching up still to do? It looks like we have. Will the targets simply get quietly reset or will they be deferred at this first way-markerof the post-2015 period. We’d like to point out that this is exactly what happened to the TB targets set by the WHA in 1991 for 2000 – these ones were casually deferred until 2005 almost as if they didn’t matter. But what we must also point out is that these targets STILL haven’t been hit twenty years later still – a fact which seems to be shamefully ignored by almost everyone. This it seems to us encapsulates the realities of tuberculosis management. No-one yet has got a grip on this curable disease.  And if this is true, what exactly does it tell us about how the victims of this curable disease are viewed?

We think that it now behoves the WHO to begin to do its job of reporting this immense plague far more clearly and coherently than it has been doing – and it needs to do this in ways that all parties can understand, and in particular can more easily appreciate what a terrible killing field this disease creates. If people see in higher-income countries see it for what it really is, then there must be a much better chance of the sort of response that so far has been so abysmally lacking.

The new WHO Director General

We’re not posting this just because the current Report is the first in the post-2015 era for which a whole new set of targets have been set by the way. It's because we have a new Director General. There’s no doubt that the last DG ramped up the fight against TB (the improved quality of the TB Reports in her era at least tell us that much), but the numbers printed within them tell us that this extra effort hasn’t been anywhere near enough to catch up with where the disease is today.

It occurs to us that Dr Tedros will need to immediately consider the following: he will need to consider the relevance of a set of targets if they can neither be properly monitored, nor be seen to be monitored, particularly by those who are in the headlights of this disease. And what’s the point of all of this data anyway if so much of it is cautiously speculative or is so retrospective that it just creates confusion without being put to effective use in ways that can help to defeat this terrible plague anyway?

In fact we think that it’s well over time for an almighty shake up in the WHO TB department.

But we also particularly want to talk more about India, and we’ll do this in greater depth in Part 2.



[2] Blog:

[3] Blog:

World TB Day 2017 (3) - lighting up the world in red ('dream, mirage or nemesis' and the 'McKeown Thesis')

As usual, March 24th was World TB Day and this year the Stop TB Partnership literally wanted to see the world ‘lit up’ for TB – meaning that they wanted to see as many iconic buildings around the world illuminated in red during the evening hours.

Well, how could we (as one of STBP’s many partners) not respond to such a call? So we shortlisted a few iconic buildings in our neighbourhood here in the UK’s West Midlands, and we approached them all accordingly. We’ll spare you the list of those who either refused, wanted ridiculous sums of money, or didn’t bother responding at all, but we can record with real gratitude that one did respond to our approaches positively – and it was our local University. (This was especially meaningful to us because two of our seven trustees happen to be alumnis but there are other reasons as well which we’ll explain below).

The university’s clock-tower (affectionately known as ‘Old Joe’) is the highest free-standing clock-tower in the world. It’s also over a hundred years old, meaning that when it was originally built there was a lot of mycobacterium tuberculosis being coughed up in the streets and buildings of this city (the so-called ‘workshop of the world’ that was at the heart of the industrial revolution).

                          'Old Joe'

                          'Old Joe'

March 24th is commemorated because it was the day in 1882 when the TB bacterium was first identified by Robert Koch in Berlin. Germany’s industrial revolution had followed close behind the UK’s and levels of TB had followed suit. In the course of his famous presentation Koch reckoned that one in seven deaths in industrialising Europe at the time were down to TB.

Birmingham University, by the way, is currently actively investigating new treatments for anti-microbial resistant disease (about a third of which currently is tuberculosis) – so we knew that we had a neat convergence of interests at hand. But we were also aware of another connection that made the idea of Old Joe being lit up in red on World TB Day something to be truly relished – this related to Professor Thomas McKeown who was professor of social medicine at the university from 1945 until his retirement in 1977. Amongst many other contributions he made tothe field he is particularly remembered for a controversial lecture he (rather provocatively) titled The Role of Modern Medicine: Dream, Mirage or Nemesis. The reason we identified him in connection with ‘Old Joe’ was this: the thesis that the professor developed through his professional years (and which he specifically discussed in this famous lecture) tells us an awful lot about TB - not just about TB back in 1882 when Koch identified the bacillus, nor when ‘Old Joe’ was constructed brick-by-brick by labourers who would have been more than familiar with the disease, nor even about post-war TB in the UK - but about the global situation of TB today.

In fact we think that Professor McKeown would have been pleased to see the clock-tower lit up in red on World TB Day, and might even be identifying the same important connections that we do in the event.

The ‘McKeown Thesis’ (as it became known) proposed some fresh theories as to why there had been such a significant population increase in Europe beginning in the 19th century. Some of his ideas have been challenged and some endorsed since, but one of his theories still remains largely undisputed (although it’s popularly ignored). This was that ‘curative measures’ actually played little part on their own in mortality decline in England and Wales, not only prior to the mid-20th century but also well into its second half. And by ‘curative measures’ he meant drugs and vaccinations.

It should be noted that McKeown was far from blind to the social misery that had accompanied industrialisation, not least in his adopted Birmingham. Such misery included grinding poverty, overcrowded slum housing, appalling working conditions and foul drinking water – and yet despite such Dickensian conditions according to all available records the national population had significantly increased. This seemed illogical given the appalling conditions people were living and working in but, after ruling out any other plausible explanation, he figured out why it must have happened. He concluded that it was fundamentally because of one of the few virtues of early industrialisation – because of farm machinery which (at the same time as it was effectively renedering most of the rural labour-force redundant and driving them from the countryside to the burgeoning cities in search of work) was producing more and better food than had ever been previously seen or (more importantly) widely consumed.

This is what had provided the primary impact on mortality rates in the mid 19th century – it was improved immune systems arising from better nutrition which in turn were protecting the population from the effects of simple infections that normally could easily become complcated and lead to death - and when these benefits in immune systems were followed by better housing, clean water supplies, proper sewage and sanitation systems (along with legislation that improved working conditions), the curve of mortality was driven downwards dramatically.

What McKeown in particular proved from the available data was that mortality from infectious diseases was already significantly lower BEFORE any effective treatments or vaccinations were introduced into medical practice (and by ‘significantly lower’ we're relatively speaking meaning very low indeed). What this suggested to the professor (very much contrary to conventional wisdom) was that much of the medical advancement of the 20th century actually had an insignificant impact either on mortality or population growth – most particularly in relation to infectious disease.

He particularly used tuberculosis as an example of this phenomenon, quoting the falling TB mortality in England and Wales beginning in the mid-19th century. Back in 1850 it was at frightening levels, but this was still a century before the first effective drugs were developed and introduced, and 120 years before the vaccine was rolled out. The following graph illustrates what happened:

In fact by the time that the first drugs arrived (something which had been dreamed about by physicians for centuries) nearly 80% of the mortality rate was already historic. It’s been calculated in fact that TB drugs and the BCG vaccination together may have contributed as little as 3.2% to the massive mortality reduction from TB in England and Wales since the 19th century.

So what does this imply for tuberculosis today – or rather (in the glowing red light of ‘Old Joe’ on March 24th) what might the late Professor be telling the new Director General of the WHO today (he had been, after all, a consultant to the Organisation in the decades prior to it declaring TB to be a Global Emergency in 1993). Well, as the late Professor Stephen Lawn also pointed out, it means that if we’re serious about ending this monumental pandemic we actually need to eradicate global poverty, clear the slums, and house and feed the poorer people of our world much better – and then the drugs can clear up what’s left of the disease and the job will be done. At least that’s what the history of TB in the industrialised world tells us very loud and clear according to the McKeown Thesis.

We should add that we’re also sure that he wouldn’t for a second suggest that we should let up on the search for new and better treatments or for a better vaccine. We suspect, however, that he would be advising the DG that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into expecting that the results of such heroic efforts will make the impression we’d logically hope for. What was the title of his lecture, after all? 'Dream, Mirage or Nemesis...'

Well let’s never stop dreaming, but let’s also never stop working for a fairer world if we seriously intend to end the scourge of tuberculosis.

(‘Old Joe’ was in good company on March 24th, by the way. Sadly there was only one other building in the UK that got lit up [The Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle] but elsewhere there were some spectacular buildings or locations: the Statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Inca Temple of the Sun in Cuzco Peru, the Jet d’Eau in Geneva, the Niagara Falls in Canada, the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, the Terminal Tower in Cleveland Ohio and the Mazar-e-Quaid national mausoleum in Karachi amongst others. So thank you so much, Birmingham University, for being part of this global light show!)

World TB Day 2017 (2): Something serious doesn't add up in the WHO numbers...

As a tiny stakeholder in the battle against tuberculosis we’ve been monitoring the pandemic through the lens of the annual WHO Global TB Reports year on year. We have to confess that we often found them difficult to penetrate beyond their executive summaries. This year, however, we’ve identified what we think are some major and very serious anomalies. We’ve written twice to Dr Katherine Floyd (the Report’s lead author) to ask if either she or her colleagues could clarify them for us without reply. Given the disappointing lack of response, we’re concluding that the WHO is reluctant either to explain or explore them so (in both exasperation and despair) we now publish the principle issues we raised below only because we think that they imply something that is very serious indeed.

The issues both revolve around the numbers as reported in the recent Report (a report which effectively wound up the era running up to the end of 2015). Whilst they may not immediately seem that important because they're historical, they are actually still of live concern because of how they inevitably impact on how these same numbers are going to be reported in the coming five, ten, fifteen and twenty years (which will, of course, be vital in terms of how we fare globally with this disease).

A summary of our observations

1. By the Report’s own definitions, the way that the 2015 Target of reducing the global death rate was reported (by comparing a 2015 estimated death rate to that of 1990) was not valid (to the extent that reasonable conclusions relating to the Targets that were set for 2015 could not  drawn).

2. Notwithstanding this, in the latest Report two of the main graphs are incoherent with each other and data within them have been misrepresented. Furthermore the published non-HIV death rate of 15/100,000 is demonstrably wrong (it is actually 19/100,000) and this in turn means that the reduction in non-HIV death rate can be nowhere near 50% as is claimed.

3. There are no baselines yet set for 2015 and, given the ongoing improvement in surveillance, it looks like any new baselines will have to be subject to continuing retrospective re-adjustment throughout the post-2015 period. This hasn’t been done up to now in respect of the 2015 Targets (which is why they are invalid) but having to do so now is going to make things extremely confusing throughout the post-2015 period specifically in terms of how the data can be monitored by those who have most at stake in them.

4. There are also inevitable implications from this for both the World Health Assembly (WHA) and the UN, and also, of course, for the new Director General of the WHO when he/she is in post. We remain unconvinced that these major game-players are truly alert to these complexities as they need to be. 

An explanation of these serious issues follows.


The Graphs

We took a quick overview of the summaries in this new 2016 Report, and particularly we took a look at the main graphs. Initially we noted that they largely followed the same vein as the years before and also accorded with the summary of the new Report which said that “the number of TB deaths and the TB incidence rate continue to fall globally”. This was further qualified by the Report’s statement that the “estimated trends in TB incidence and mortality remain similar to those published in previous years, with incidence falling by 2% per year over 2000–2015 and mortality falling by 3.3% per year over the same period.”

Of course, because it wasn’t concealed, we’d also spotted the fact that the reported estimated death toll had shot up this year by a third of a million and that the estimated number of new cases of disease had shot up by 800,000 as well. Clearly things weren’t as simple as they sounded and we realised though that these diverse statements deserved further examination.

In fact the Report appeared to be both explicit and coy at the same time on these extra numbers: “the [2016] report shows that the TB burden is actually higher than previously estimated, reflecting new surveillance and survey data from India” it explained. But in all respects the vitally important overall trends were still being reported to be in decline – we could even confirm this from the graph of trends of rates of disease 1990-2015, one of which showed that the non-HIV death rate had dropped by about 48% (as had been predicted in previous Reports), importantly adding up to the 2015 Target nearly being met. What’s more we noted that there was no visible up-kick in the graph reflecting the newly estimated 300,000 extra deaths – which we recognised meant that the line in the graph must have been generally shifted upwards in its entirety since the previous Report.   

So far, so good. We also noted, however, that several respected commentators read the Report in a less positive way – specifically identifying that the number of people dying of TB was “growing”. But what, we wondered, about the Report’s executive summary that states so so explicitly that mortality was still falling during 2015 at 3.3% a year? So we took a look at the second main graph that focused on the one depicting mortality numbers (not this time the rates per 100,000 population). Again we could see no visible up-kick in the graph for the most recent year on record (for 2015): in other words, according to the Report both the death rate AND the numbers were still falling so the declining lines in both graphs must have been adjusted upwards to allow for this along with the extra numbers.

Of course we were also well aware of the usual small print at the bottom of this graphic that this “excludes TB deaths among HIV-positive people" (so the graph doesn’t in any case include every estimated TB mortality) but, notwithstanding this, it did seem reasonable to try to figure out exactly where those extra 300,000 deaths were in the graph. What follows is the result of our investigation.

Absolute numbers and the 1990 baseline

Before explaining further, we should add that we also noted something else: whilst the first graph goes back to 1990 (the baseline for the 2015 Targets) this second graph of absolute numbers only covers the period 2000-2015. As such we realised that the Report effectively leaves us in the dark about the actual numerical death toll that must have originally been estimated for 1990. What we COULD be sure about, however, (in spite of the downward trend in mortality rates in the first graph) was that annual numerical deaths had been rising from 1990 right through to around 2005 when (at least according to the most recent estimate in the graph above) they are now believed to have peaked when running at somewhere around 2.2 million a year.

We turned to the WHO Reports from 1997-2002 for further help (the ones which reported on data from the year 2000 and before) but unfortunately we couldn't find anything in them to enlighten us about that original 1990 death toll either. This was simply because the estimated annual death tolls from TB weren’t published in the annual Reports until 2005 because (we assume) of the paucity of available data. But at least in the following year’s Report (i.e. the one for 2006) we finally found the original baseline death rate for 1990 identified, which was 29/100,000.

The estimated death tolls for 2015 and what appears to be a serious mistake in the graphs

But we were still left wondering about HOW MANY people were estimated to have been dying from TB back in 1990. We could see that this wasn't identified because prior to 2005 they weren’t being estimated, but we realised that it would still be possible to figure this out by using the death rate that was pegged for 1990 that year (i.e. 29/100,000) and then computing it against the global population for the same year. So we ended up drawing up a rough table to help illustrate this for ourselves and (as can be seen below) we realised that this not only made for more confusion, it created some very significant disquiet about the current estimates and how they are being represented, not least because there now appeared to be a major error in the first graph above.

First we established that the global population in 1990 was estimated to be 5.28 billion which made the numerical non-HIV TB death toll 1.53 million at the quoted death rate of 29/100,000. Today the non-HIV TB numerical death toll is estimated to be 1.4 million, so the absolute number of non-HIV deaths can be deduced to have reduced by only 9% (1.53 million down to 1.4 million) between 1990 and today. But that was far from the end of it as we'll explain immediately.

This was because in the course of figuring this out something significant jumped out that hadn’t been visible at all, at least as far as we could see, within the 2016 Report itself.

The death rate for 2015 is reported/estimated to have been 15/100,000 (making for that supposed 48% reduction). On a whim we decided to compute this against the population estimate of 7.3 billion for 2015 in exactly the same way that we’d just done for 1990, and we found that this makes for a calculated death toll of 1.1 million. But the Report had categorically pegged the non-HIV death toll from TB at 1.4 million! We double checked, and realised that these two estimates, both drawn directly from the Report’s own data, are simply incoherent with each other.  In fact they are out by 300,000 and we realised that we’d stumbled across those extra deaths, and that they weren’t actually being shown in one of the graphs.

We think that this comprises a major and misleading error..

Try as we could, we could see no other explanation of the discrepancy, but in trying to explain it to ourselves, we also realised that there were several other observations which can be reasonably made from our little table – all of which are, we think, are of sufficient public concern for them to need to be published.

1.       The published reduction in non-HIV TB death rates (29/100,000 -> 15/100,000) may add up to a decrease of 48% but during this same period there appears to be a 12.5% increase in the OVERALL annual death toll (from 1.6 million [see note 3 below] to 1.8 million). We realise, however, that while this might at first appear to be gobbledygook, it should be borne in mind that there have been substantial population growths in many high burden countries which at least explains some of this (and of course also a lot of HIV/AIDS).

2.       Then we figured out with some simple maths that a non-HIV death toll of 1.4 million in a population of 7.3 million actually makes for a death rate of 19/100,000, which is not really that close to 15/100,000 at all. So why, we now ask, was this re-estimation not shown in the graph that relates directly to one of the Targets set for 2015? According to our table this means that it looks like the death rate can only be claimed to have reduced by 38% and not by 48% (the latter percentage looking much closer to that 50% MDG Target that is still been reported in this latest Report to have been nearly achieved). At the very least these are significant anomalies that need further explanation.

3.       We also know that 1990 saw the HIV pandemic still very much in its infancy. According to UNAIDS data there were estimated to be 300,000 HIV-associated deaths worldwide in that year. We quickly figured out that if 25% of them actually died of TB (which might be a reasonable percentage based on later data) then 75,000 deaths needed to be added to our 1990 non-HIV death toll of 1.53 million which we’d just calculated – which made 1.6 million as our own total ‘all TB’ death toll for 1990. Since the current death toll is pegged at 1.8 million, this in turn suggests that the TOTAL absolute number of annual TB deaths may have increased by 12.5% during the period 1990-2015 that was governed by the Millennium targets. This surely shows how poorly the HIV-TB syndemic was managed in the early years - but since the post-2015 targets for mortality now demand reductions of ABSOLUTE NUMBERS of all TB deaths it surely also tells us (if any of us were still under any illusion) how immensely challenging meeting these targets is going to be.

4.       And once we'd included these HIV/TB deaths in the totals (i.e. 1.8 million deaths as per the most recent Report) the current overall TB death rate looks to be nearly 25/100,000 making for a rather paltry reduction of just 14% in the overall death rate for TB for the total period of 1990-2015. It occurs to us that this sort of insignificant reduction really deserved to be reported alongside that of non-HIV deaths because of the impact it must inevitably have on the post-2015 period and its targets.

5.       We also noted (again using UNAIDS data) that there were 1.5 million HIV deaths in 2000. Using our previous estimated percentage of 25% of these actually dying from tuberculosis, this made for a possible 2.1 million total all-TB’ deaths during 2000 so this is what we added into the table above in order to complete it. It may not be accurate but it certainly didn’t make it look incoherent.

6.        Finally we made a quick check of the estimated reductions in each of the ‘Big Three’ infectious killers in this period 2000-2015 (HIV, malaria and TB). The numbers of new HIV infections dropped by 32 percent, and the number of HIV deaths declined by 31 percent. Malaria infections dropped by 18 percent, and deaths by 48 percent. New cases of TB, meanwhile, appear to have only globally dropped by about 1 percent, and deaths — when not including the numbers of tuberculosis-related deaths among people with HIV — only fell by 22 percent, while ‘all-TB’ deaths only fell 14%. In other words TB has very much emerged as the biggest of the big three at the end of the 2015 era, and we feel that this surely should have been reported as it is a matter of such grave concern to us all.


Reductions between 2000 and 2015             Deaths           New cases

Malaria                                                               48%                 18%

HIV                                                                     31%                  32%

TB                                                                       14%                   1%

If these rough calculations are remotely correct, it occurs to us that all of these findings shouldn’t just be in the public domain, they should also be particularly in both the hands and minds of those in the World Assembly and the UN (and also the new Director General) who all have the influence to make the very necessary changes to the battle against this pandemic in the next couple of years.


The difference between 2000-2015 time period and the one before it and the (in)validity of direct comparisons

We also noticed something else, however. We saw that this same baseline 1990 death-rate of 29/100,000 is also indicated in the current Report's graph (above) for 2015 – something which contrats with all of the subsequent retro-calculations that have been historically re-estimating the numbers..

Since this original 1990 death rate of 29/100,000 is exactly the same as the rate that appears in the current graph (the current one computed for 2015), and given that this rate has been in all the Reports since 2005, we realised that not everything can have been subjected to retro-calculation in these Reports as one might have expected. In fact the evidence suggested that the 1990 baseline (and quite possibly the entire data for the whole period 1990-1999) has actually NEVER been retro-calculated while almost everything since the year 2000 has been. We then homed in on a small-print disclaimer in the Report that (as we read it) implies that it should be assumed that no retro-calculation has ever been attempted or applied for any data prior to 2000:

“The updates can affect the entire time-series back to 2000. Therefore, estimates presented in this chapter for 2000−2014 supersede those of previous reports, and direct comparisons (e.g.between the 2014 estimates in this report and the 2014 estimates in the previous report) are not appropriate.”

This may all sound like a load of unimportant semantics to most readers of these reports but this disclaimer, while it may explain one anomaly, surely creates another which we believe is a very big deal indeed. This is because if “direct comparisons” aren’t appropriate between Reports (which is what the above disclaimer avers), then the same thing applies to any claims being made relating to the Goals to 2015 because they DIRECTLY compare current data (ones which have been adjusted based on better surveillance and now supersede all previous) with data from the 1990s which have never been retro-calculated nor superseded.

As such, in the Report’s own words (and by its own definitions) any comparisons made between data from 1990 and 2015 and any claims made about them cannot be deemed to be “appropriate”. In turn this suggests that all the reporting that’s been made in relation to meeting these targets has been questionable if not meaningless. This was a shocking conclusion for us to have drawn.

But there were now some other things that weren’t adding up as well. We still couldn't completely resolve, for instance, how (according to this Report) things seemed to be both deteriorating and improving at the same time.

More on the 1990 baseline

First of all, 1990 was both previous to and outside of the current time line series of 2015 back to 2000 (the time line which the Report states is subject to re-adjustments). As such it might seem to be reasonable to argue that it’s exempt from adjustment, but the truth is that the 2015 Targets (and thus the death rate for 1990) were actually set in 2005. As such it must have been set with the available data and intelligence from that year (i.e. from data available within the 2000-2015 period). This means (at least it does to us!) that despite the fact that 1990 is outside the 2000-2015 period, the estimated 1990 death rate is implicitly still a component part of the current time line series and so could (and should) have been re-adjusted and superseded in the same way as all the other post-2000 data have been. 

The bottom line is that a set of goal posts at one end appear to have been moved regularly, while the one at the other hasn’t been moved at all.

Of course we also appreciate the enormous challenges that are faced by those compiling the Reports. We can’t help but conclude, however, that the disclaimer that states that each Report supersedes all previous ones has effectively made any assessment of any real progress in defeating this disease by the rest of the world difficult if not impossible. By not moving any goal posts from the period 1990-1999 it makes any assessment of the Millennium targets (including when done by the WHO itself in its Reports) a very tentative endeavour indeed - if not worthless. We can't help but wonder, moreover, whether anyone of those 192 signatories in the World Health Assembly was aware of this two years ago when they all signed up to the Post-2015 targets. In other words, do the play makers who’ve signed up to this deadly 'game' really have any ral idea about its true realities in terms of what does or doesn’t get adjusted as we go along?


World TB Day 2017 (1) -

In 1917, exactly one hundred years ago, a London-based physician called out his native country on tuberculosis[1]:

“As long as apathy, arrogance, ignorance and indifference endure, so surely will tuberculosis claim its hourly victims,” he railed.

Tragically these same words can still be applied to TB today. Apathy is out there in spades along with undeniable and unacceptable arrogance in some quarters. And there’s no question that both ignorance and indifference prevail as well. So has NOTHING changed in the world of TB in the last hundred years?

Well, one thing has done – it’s certainly changed here in the UK. Back in 1917 when Dr Halliday Sutherland made his impassioned speech it was reckoned that one in every eight people were dying of TB in the UK. Today this rate is roughly one in every 2,200.

So what would Dr Sutherland be making of today’s pandemic, given that its victims are not being counted “hourly” as he did in his speech, but rather by minutes and even seconds (one TB death occurs roughly every 15 seconds)?

We suspect he’d be outraged. History here in the UK proves beyond doubt that TB CAN be driven into the gutter by medicine when it’s accompanied by effort commitment to social change. A century ago he identified that “modern medicine [had] … found the cause, sources and cure of this disease” so he’d surely now be asking why the hell a century later we’ve so abjectly failed to defeat it yet. In fact he as good as nailed it in 1917 identifying that:

“… man and man alone has created the conditions under which it may arise, spread and destroy.”

In other words it’s humanity itself (or perhaps more accurately our lack of humanity) that has allowed this disease to thrive in our globalised world right under our noses in spite of a vaccine and a set of drugs that plainly worked in the UK.

He also stated in his speech that prior to the 1914-18 war TB had been creating “one-eleventh of the total pauperism in England and Wales”.  Today Archbishop Tutu is saying much the same thing, pointing out that TB is not just the awful child of poverty, it is also both its parent and provider.

Dare we suggest it, but that appalling  one-eleventh factor for impoverishment might well be even higher today in some middle- and low-income countries – that is if anyone cared or dared to measure it.

But they won’t, will they, exactly because of those same four apocalyptic etiological horses - “apathy, arrogance, ignorance and indifference”.




WHO's response to our letter

In our last blog we published the letter we wrote to Dr Matteo Zignol of the WHO in response to a letter which he wrote to the Guardian dismissing a study of MDR-TB prevalence in West Africa (conducted in eight countries) as being "unhelpful" and "misleading" without any real substantiation.

Given the fact that there is very clearly an MDR-TB problem in the region (indeed the estimated rate of MDR-TB in Nigeria rose 20% in a single year in the most recent WHO Global TB Repor) his letter disturbed us enough that we decided it would be right to publish our letter to him (which, of course we advised him of). He recently responded, our letter having somehow  got lost at its first sending.

We publish his response in full below. It's not a response, unfortunately, which has satisfied our concerns although we very much appreciate his efforts to explain his original letter. Regrettably we still don't understand why he found the study to be so unhelpful and misleading - enough to have written to the Guardian newspaper. We have therefore responded explaining our continuing concerns. Meanwhile we publish his letter in full for your own assessment.

Dear Mr Young,

For some reasons I don’t seem to have a record of your previous message. Thanks for the reminder and sorry for the inconvenience.

 I fully share your concerns re. the lack of data on the magnitude of the problem of drug-resistant tuberculosis in Western Africa.

The point I wanted to make with my letter is very simple: the conclusions put forward by the authors of the study and reported by the journal (” West African drug-resistance prevalence poses a previously underestimated, yet serious public health threat, and our estimates obtained differ significantly from previous World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. Therefore, our data are reshaping current concepts and are essential in informing WHO and public health strategists to implement urgently needed surveillance and control interventions in West Africa.”) are not supported by the study design and therefore are misleading.

I think everyone understands that results of a study conducted in selected national TB referral centers cannot be extrapolated to entire countries. It is well known from evidence from all over the world that in hospital settings and health referral centres, levels of resistance to anti-tuberculosis drugs are significantly higher than those found in a nationally representative surveys of TB patients. A proper understanding of the epidemiology of drug resistance in tuberculosis in a country can only be achieved through well designed population-based surveys or routine surveillance among all TB patients.

 As you know WHO updates country-level estimates of the burden of TB and drug-resistant TB every year as soon as new evidence becomes available. Unfortunately the results of this study are not helpful in this regard. In this region population-based national surveys are currently ongoing in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory coast and a survey will soon start in Togo.  These efforts are clearly not enough but will surly contribute to a better understanding of the magnitude of the problem of drug-resistant TB in these countries.

 Best regards,

 Matteo Zignol

A letter to the World Health Organisation

Dear Dr Zignol ~

I write with reference to your letter to the Guardian of November 7th. You will recall, I’m sure, that you wrote in relation to a study that was recently carried out in West Africa by the West African Network of Excellence for TB, Aids and Malaria and which was reported by the Guardian on 3rd November. Your letter made it clear that you considered the “claims” which you reckoned the study had made to be “misleading and unhelpful”. Given the perilous state of the drug-resistant TB epidemic in the African region we took careful note of your comments and have equally carefully reviewed them in the light of the study itself. Unfortunately we have  concluded that it was actually your letter which may have been misleading, and not the study.

We have decided to explain our misgivings to you and invite your further engagement on the matter. We are copying this letter to Sarah Boseley, the journalist who wrote the original piece, and we are also publishing it on the blog page of our website because we consider this wider topic to be a matter of immense public concernwhich is still not being given the attention it deserves. As such we will welcome your response at your convenience, and in anticipation of this we also advise you that we will publish it on the same blog page for wider public consumption.

At first we wondered whether your letter might have simply been written in direct response to the journalist, i.e. you may have been challenging her journalism for not properly reflecting the study itself. After careful consideration, however, we don’t believe this to have been the case because you didn’t specifically call into question what the journalist wrote. What you did appear to call into question were the “claims” (a word which you used twice) that were apparently being made that rates of MDR-TB in West Africa are currently higher than WHO estimates; in other words you were challenging the actual content of the study.

Given that the estimates of the rates of MDR-TB for the African region generally are still being calculated to be below the global average (when we consider that the opposite is far more likely) we find such a conclusion to be a significant public health concern. We know, for instance, that TB epidemics thrive on weaker health infrastructures, and that weak health infrastructures in turn almost inevitably spawn MDR outbreaks in the course of time because of what will have been an anticipatable poor management of first line drugs. Our own view is that the African TB epidemic must be considered as such - to have a strong probability of having a significant proportion of MDR within it, with or without the benefit of any national surveys that may in any case be beyond local resource to conduct without immense outside help. Furthermore, the fact that HIV is considered by the WHO to be a risk factor for MDR development (as witnessed by its 2010 ‘strong recommendation’ for GeneXpert to be used to test for Rifampicin resistance in all co-infected patients) must surely only amplify this probability. As such we have been consistently baffled by the continuing low estimates of MDR-TB for the African region and are worried by the consequent lack of resource for the region to contain MDR-TB because we believe that they fly in the face of what should be the implementation of judiciously implemented precautionary principles to protect those most at risk of this disease.

But to return to your letter to the Guardian: you specifically stated that the study was claiming that “multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) rates in west Africa ARE actually higher than estimates published by the World Health Organisation”. You then concluded that these claims “ARE both misleading and unhelpful” because there is a lack of epidemiological evidence for them. We have capitalised the word ‘are’ in both instances in order to emphasise its use since we are deeply concerned by what its employment seems to reveal. We would go so far as to suggest that the use of the word ‘are’ in this context may actually render your own letter, and not what you describe as the study’s claims, to be misleading or unhelpful (or possibly both).

In fact after evaluating the text of the study itself we could find no such categorical claims being made as your letter described. Rather we found suggestions, and we underline them accordingly for you in the following extracts. The authors of the study were “highlighting the possibility that drug resistance in West Africa is currently underestimated”. They further added that “the situation appears especially alarming in Nigeria”. They reasoned that “the presented MDR data … indicate that the drug-resistant problem in West Africa may be greater than currently assumed,” and concluded that “drug resistant TB could become a serious public health problem in West Africa if required control measures are not taken”. Could you help us understand what exactly caused you to react so negatively to what seemed a quite reasonable study which seemed to draw quite reasonable suppositions from the data it revealed?

 Of course there were indeed some limitations to the study as your letter intimated, but actually these were adequately identified by the authors in the study itself. Certainly they didn’t seem to warrant such outright dismissal of the study as you made in your letter.

In fact even the Guardian (while its choice of wording may have been less judiciously chosen - it’s a newspaper after all and not a scientific journal), was hardly guilty of sensationalising the study. It in turn only reported that the study was “suggesting” that the seriousness of the epidemic had been “considerably underestimated”.

(We can identify only one significant inaccuracy, in fact, in the Guardian report  - that XDR-TB has been found in new cases in both Togo and Ghana, when in fact these strains were actually pre-XDR.)

We did take some comfort from your observation that “west Africa remains a part of the world where MDR-TB surveillance data are most lacking”, particularly when we considered this alongside the study’s own conclusion that there is “an urgent need for country wide drug resistant surveys according to WHO guidelines”. But your letter doesn’t seem to draw this same secondary conclusion – in fact it seemed to us to do the opposite by implying that without any visible substantiation the rates of MDR-TB in the region may not even be on the rise at all so no survey would appear to be necessary. Why, otherwise, would this study have seemed to you to be so “unhelpful”?

The real problem is that so little has been done to facilitate better surveillance of MDR-TB for the region. You very rightly stressed in your letter that the collection of data is vitally important for all diseases, but I’m afraid that we found ourselves deeply troubled when you followed this by stating that “WHO estimates on MDR-TB are based exclusively on population-based surveys, such as those recently conducted in Nigeria and Senegal”.

First of all, we believe that this statement is misleading if not factually incorrect – at best WHO MDR estimates for the African region are based on surveys that are sometimes years out of date, or on single surveys from which trends cannot be evaluated, if any exist at all. In fact of the eight West African countries included in the study in question only two (Nigeria in 2010 and Senegal in 2014) have ever conducted an MDR study which surveyed both new and retreatment cases.

We can’t help adding a further observation in relation to South Africa, however, which may well reflect on the general assessment of MDR-TB in the whole of the region as well as on your statement that estimates are based so exclusively on population-based surveys. Until this year the published estimates for South Africa as published in WHO Reports  have been based on a survey that was completed back in 2002 meaning that it has been hopelessly out of date for years: the trouble was that this population based survey was used in the WHO’s own Reports without any attempts at adjustment  meaning that published estimated incident numbers of MDR cases for South Africa were year on year significantly less than the actual cases that were being notified each year to the national TB program (which I think all of us agree is an impossibility). This anomaly even now appears to have bizarrely lingered on into the current Report, despite a new DR Survey having been completed in 2014. The estimated number of MDR/RR-TB cases being quoted in the current WHO Global Report amongst pulmonary cases notified in 2015 was 10,000, whilst elsewhere the estimated numerical incidence of MDR/RRTB was suggested to be 20,000. Meanwhile the number of laboratory confirmed cases was over 20,000 (at 68% CDR this would suggest a more probable estimated incidence of MDR of around 30,000) and the number of cases started in second line treatment was over 13,000. These sorts of obfuscations (which of course in turn are being used to build a wider picture of the African MDR-TB epidemic) isn’t new and can hardly help to build any sort of true picture of the African epidemic as the crisis deserves.

Secondly, the reference you made to the 2010 Nigerian MDR prevalence survey should surely only amplify our collective concern and not reduce it. You will recall, I am sure, that the 2012 Nigerian TB prevalence Survey revealed five times the amount of prevalent sputum positive TB than was notified that same year to the Nigerian NTP (nearly half of which wasn’t sputum positive anyway). This meant that the following WHO Global Report in 2013 hiked the Nigerian prevalence rates by over 100%, incidence rates by over 200% and mortality rates by over 400%, with the regional rates for Africa hiked by 4%, 12%, and 44% respectively as well. The Case Detection Rate for Nigeria meanwhile was reduced from 51% to a terrifying 16% at a stroke. Whether not these hikes were accurate is beside the point; the point is that even in an HBC country like Nigeria, where expert opinion should be expected to be at least somewhere near the button (if not actually on it), a national prevalence survey can render previous estimates deduced with the help of expert opinion to be in an instant appallingly inaccurate. This 2012 survey doesn’t only show that TB estimates, even of drug-susceptible TB, can be terribly underestimated twenty odd years into a Global emergency, it also suggests the possibility that this could occur as easily in West Africa as anywhere. That 2012 Survey effectively suggested that the prevalent amount of sputum-positive TB might have been as much as ten times more than was being notified into the system in the course of that same year. The Guardian report was only suggesting that the rates of MDR-TB for West Africa might be three times higher (though that’s worrying enough if it’s near the truth)!

In the light of these considerations, surely it’s entirely reasonable for the authors of this study to have hypothesised, based on its findings, that the true levels of MDR-TB might just be higher than the WHO estimates? Might not a full prevalence survey of MDR-TB for the region reveal such an epidemiological underestimation? The truth is, of course, that we simply don’t know how much MDR-TB there is in West Africa and we will only ever know, of course, if a wider survey or surveys are conducted as they should be. Surely this study wasn’t in any way “unhelpful” in respect of encouraging this to happen, is it? In our view it is quite the opposite.

In conclusion your letter leaves us both confused and concerned because these uncertainties leave so many lives are at risk. 

 We are left very seriously wondering whether the WHO is yet taking the threat of MDR-TB to the African region as seriously as it could and should do. Furthermore we find ourselves fully agreeing with the study’s authors’ conclusions that “efforts [should] be put in place for containment of a potential west African TB epidemic at the earliest possible stage … as west Africa, with its 245 million inhabitants, is one of the poorest regions globally, whose fragile health systems can easily be overwhelmed by infectious disease epidemics, as seen in the recent Ebola outbreak.” It’s no secret that the WHO itself recently came under considerable criticism for its tardiness in responding to the Ebola outbreak in the same region. It would surely be a far larger tragedy if we are witnessing the same thing happening with MDR-TB at a much larger scale in slow-mo.

 This isn’t just the responsibility of the WHO, of course, it’s also the responsibility of regional governments and donor nations, exactly as was identified in the Guardian piece when Ms Boseley quoted Professor Antonio, the principal investigator at the Medical Research Council unit in the Gambia who said that this study was “a wake-up call for the ministries of health and the governments to take MDR-TB seriously.”

 It must surely be the responsibility of the WHO, however, to take a positive and proactive leadership role in this process.

 We look forward to receiving your comments on the above, and will welcome corrections if or where we have made any misleading or inaccurate representations ourselves.

 Merlin Young

Chair and Co-founder - Moxafrica.

‘The time has come to move TB to centre stage’ – but what’s happening in India?

The UN has only ever previously called summits on health issues for three reasons: HIV, Ebola, and widespread chronic diseases (which essentially means diabetes). This week has been the fourth, with the UN hosting a panel discussion and making a resolution regarding the growing global threat from AMR or anti-microbial resistance – or the disquieting ability of microbes to morph and mutate to make themselves immune to assaults by the drugs meticulously developed to kill them.

Within the resolution itself there is an important reference to tuberculosis: “Within the broader context of AMR, resistance to antibiotics which are not like other medicines, including medicines for the treatment of tuberculosis, is the greatest and most urgent global risk that requires increased attention and coherence at the international, regional, and national levels.”

So far so good, because anti-miocrobial resistance (with MDR- and XDR-TB very much acting as its vanguard) unquestionably poses a major health risk worldwide. We have already recorded our concerns, however, that this threat is still being dangerously numerically underestimated, but whilst Dr David Nabarro, the UN Special Advisor on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,might well not agree with some of our calculations, we certainly would agree with his own observation that “Multi-drug resistant TB needs to be high on the global antimicrobial resistance agenda as we discuss these issues at the upcoming United Nations high-level meeting.”

We’d go further, though, and line up behind South African Health Minister and Chair of the Stop TB Partnership Aaron Motsoaledi who has proclaimed that, “The time has come to move TB to the centre of the stage”. He reckons that this week’s summit should be seen as only a first step towards doing this: “A United Nations High-Level Meeting devoted [entirely] to TB in 2017 is an important way to do this and to reframe TB from simply a technical health problem, to a global development challenge requiring a whole of society response.”

The true enormity of this challenge (as well as its urgency), however, has been highlighted by two separate papers which have been recently published in the Lancet. Both concern the management of TB in India, a country estimated to have as much as one quarter of the global burden of the disease, as well as what is reckoned by many experts to be MDR- and XDR-TB problems that are already well out of control.

(photo by James Nachtwey)

(photo by James Nachtwey)

The first study[1], led by Nim Pathy of Imperial College London and funded by the Gates Foundation, fundamentally challenges the estimate of tuberculosis in the country, calculating that the total number of patients receiving TB treatment in India in 2014 wasn’t 2.2 million (as per the most recent WHO Report), but was much more probably at least 3.6 million. Put another way, the WHO estimated that 800,000 cases of TB were missed by the Indian National TB programme (RNTCP) in 2014 (which is surely bad enough), but this study puts this missing number at 2.2 million (i.e. a case detection rate of just 44% instead of an officially suggested 74%). And this number doesn't include those who just weren't treated at all. If this study is right then this in turn adds up to more than two million infectious cases who weren’t properly treated in 2014, many of whom will have remained infectious, and a proportion of whom will inevitably have become drug-resistant because of partially completed treatment. (This is no fantasy – the study calculated that the average length of time of the treatments which were conducted in the private sector was only four months’ duration – two months short of the WHO requirement.) It surely suggests a TB programme that is dramatically failing the nation.

Compute the study’s conclusions into the global numbers and it doesn’t make for very cheery reading at all for those tasked with bringing the numbers down either. Current global ‘new case’ estimates of TB incidence run at 9.6 million a year; if this current study is correct in its conclusions, then the global incident rate is actually running at 11 million (globally a 15% hike at a stroke). Meanwhile according to the WHO the current global estimate of missed cases runs at 3.6 million – but this study’s estimate hikes this number up to over 4.4 million (or at least four out of every ten TB cases worldwide). Meanwhile God alone knows what this might be doing to the annual death toll…

The team reached their conclusions by analysing the nationwide sale of anti-tuberculosis drugs which occurred nationally across the private sector in India in the course of 2014 (sales which legally have to be recorded and reported, which amounted to almost 18 million patient months of treatment). They then allowed a generous deduction for TB drugs which would have been probably mis-prescribed to patients who wouldn’t have had TB at all (they cut these reported numbers by half), and then coupled this number up with the number of known notified treatments made by the national TB programme (RNTCP) to come up with a grand total of estimated incident cases of TB – amounting to 3.6 million instead of 2.2 million.

It’s tempting to point the finger at India’s huge informal health sector as being responsible for what is such a truly immense consumption of tuberculosis drugs (half of which, or 9 million patient months’ worth, is believed by the study team to be straightforward misuse which of course itself will increase rates of anti-microbial resistance). The second study, however, (which we’ll come to in a minute) shows quite clearly that anti-tuberculosis drugs are actually very rarely dispensed by the sector’s other operatives – by its pharmacists, informal health providers, and practitioners of alternative medical systems. In fact it’s fully qualified, allopathic doctors who are the primary source of these anti-tuberculosis drug sales, and should surely thus be the immediate and well overdue target of far more proactive engagement to ensure better antimicrobial stewardship if this week’s UN resolution stands a prayer of adding up to anything.

Unfortunately, this first study’s numerical conclusions are almost certainly an underestimate anyway, because there are also several types of TB patient that this data didn’t capture at all. There are those who must indeed be receiving treatment for tuberculosis in the more informal health-care sector (of whom there are bound to be many); there are those who for many reasons don’t ever contact the health-care system at all (the number of whom is certain to be substantial); and there are also those who receive very risky treatment for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in the private sector (a number which is known to be growing and which is surely the most frightening of all since it’s already been well recognised that these are the worst served and can easily stoke community rates of untreatable XDR-TB). Taken together, these factors would suggest that the true burden of tuberculosis in India is probably even greater than what is suggested in this paper.

What’s of additional concern is surely this, though– why on earth are TB patients resorting in such droves to the private sector of India’s health system and paying for this dubious privilege when TB drugs are free at point of care in this country? Can the public sector really be so appallingly bad? India’s RNTCP, after all, is fully committed to providing free high-quality tuberculosis care to patients in the private sector as well as the public one. (See: Sachdeva et al. New vision for Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme(RNTCP): universal access—“Reaching the Un-reached”. Indian Journal of Medical Research 2012; 135: 690–94).

If a 6-month course of first-line TB drugs costs US$20, this first Lancet paper implies (quite incredibly) that nearly US$60 million was spent in out-of-pocket expenditure on first-line tuberculosis drugs by Indian TB patients (forget consultation charges) – by a patient group that is already well-recognised to be the most vulnerable to this disease because of their poor economic status.

Something has clearly been going drastically wrong with India’s TB programme and it’s been going on for years right under the global authorities’ noses.

Well, so far we’re pointing our finger towards India’s doctors, many of whom seem happy to ignore WHO recommendations and take money that they shouldn’t do from their patients. So what about this great nation’s pharmacists – how do they hold up to scrutiny in this respect?

This question is a valid one because many tuberculosis patients in India seek both medical advice and drugs from their nearest pharmacies, understandably so because of ease of access and the chance of avoiding the doctors’ consultation charges by doing so.  Unfortunately, it looks like this sector of health care is also sorrily suspect as regards of promoting AMR, though for other reasons. Certainly this is the case as far as the second paper is concerned.

This second study[2], conducted by a team led by Srinath Satyanarayana (of McGill University, Canada), mobilised a group of standardized patients (otherwise called ‘simulated’ or ‘mystery patients’) to reveal how pharmacies in three Indian cities respond to members of the public who might present to them either with TB symptoms or with clinical TB diagnoses, and thus determine whether or not these pharmacies are contributing to the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

These 1200 ‘mystery patients’ presented themselves in 622 pharmacies in Mumbai, Chennai and Pathna in 2014-15. They split into two categories, either reporting symptoms which should immediately have alerted the dispensing pharmacist that the person in front of them had a high probability of having active TB, or alternatively presenting them with evidence of bacteriological confirmation of TB diagnosis (in other words leaving no doubt at all about it). In either case, if the pharmacist responded properly, the mystery patient should have been directed immediately to an appropriate TB DOTS centre without dispensing either antibiotics or steroids.

Unfortunately the team recorded ‘ideal management’ of these patients (defined by the team as a referral at least to a ‘health care provider’ and without a prescription of either antibiotics or steroids in the process) in only 80 (or 13%) of the 599 cases who presented with ‘TB-probable’ symptoms.  That’s a terrifyingly low number. The pharmacists did better with the patients who came in with confirmation of diagnosis, but even this only occurred in 372 (or just 62%) of the 601 cases who presented with indisputable bacteriological evidence of disease.

Most astonishingly of all, in only three instances of all 1200 pharmacy presentations was the standardised patient referred specifically to an official ‘directly observed treatment, short-course’ (DOTS) centre as opposed to a health care provider – as should have been optimally (and reasonably) expected to be the case if procedures were being properly followed.

We’ve noted already that many patients resort to pharmacists in order to avoid doctors’ consultation costs. It seems, however, that India’s pharmacists show little sensitivity to this economic vulnerability, being as they are quite happy to inappropriately sell these patients drugs (albeit not TB drugs, but still other antibiotics or steroids) that not only will probably do these patients no good, but might also stoke the national AMR problem at the same time. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that India has the highest total national consumption of antibiotics: it may well be because it makes such financial sense to the nation’s pharmacists. What we now ask is whether the nation’s pharmacists will still try to keep it that way in the light of the UN resolution.

We also sadly note that, of the total referrals that were made, 60% were to doctors in the private sector where the patient would most certainly have to pay at least for their consultation. This begs the logical question as to whether informal financial arrangements might exist between pharmacists and private physicians which might induce such unnecessary referrals.

So three further questions need asking.

The first is this rather blunt one: does the Indian pharmacy industry in these cities give a flying fig about the people it serves? The second is more fundamental: does it have any real clue about how TB cases, either probable or definite, should be being handled?

The third is the biggest one of all: is the Indian Health Ministry going to do something about all of this?

Meanwhile, if you are a person who prays, it looks like every TB patient in India is in need of your active and immediate help.

[1] The number of privately treated tuberculosis cases in India: an estimation from drug sales data

[2] Use of standardised patients to assess antibiotic dispensing for tuberculosis by pharmacies in urban India: a cross-sectional study


Seeing politicians getting behind TB...

 Last week at the ‘TB2016’ Conference in Durban, the official launch of an African TB Caucus was hailed as “a renewed political commitment” to ending TB in Africa. Let's hope that it is one.

 Political representatives from twenty African countries had gathered to launch a formal network of parliamentarians from the entire African continent  -  politicians who are now saying that they are dedicated to leading the fight against tuberculosis. It should be cautiously noted that twenty countries in Africa add up to less than half of the countries in the region, which surely must leave some concern, but the same thing’s been happening recently global regions as well, each caucus representing a regional effort to launch parliamentary networks specifically dedicated to ‘upping the anti’ on TB, particularly to raise the disease higher up the list of priorities for Ministers of Health across every regions, and to generally build pressure for action on TB through parliamentary routes.


Parliamentarian Abera Buno Adula from Kenya signing the statement of commitment.

Parliamentarian Abera Buno Adula from Kenya signing the statement of commitment.

It all sounds really good, but we only too well know what politicians can be like, don’t we? (They’ll pretty much sign up to anything if it gives them a soundbite in the media and a few votes..)

 Well, the day before the African Caucus was launched, the Stop TB Partnership and MSF (who were also in Durban) co-launched their Step Up for TB Campaign, demanding that countries  do something more than focus their attentions on this neglected pandemic at TB conferences –  that they must specifically ensure that their TB Policies are updated to align with current WHO global guidelines and that they must do so “within the next 500 days”. They have several good reasons to be more than insistent as we’ll see below.

One reason (which they didn’t mention in the report) is that three years ago another group of African politicians (this time the Health Ministers from the eight Southern African Development Zone countries - a region with the highest regional rates of TB anywhere in the world by a country mile) signed what they called the “Swaziland Statement” – on this occasion pledging to catch up on TB targets in the “following thousand days” – targets which had been most appallingly missed in the previous two thousand having been set as part of the Global Targets for TB set in 2006.

2013 through till 2016 …  hmmm. This interval of time pretty much amounts to that thousand days which makes that pledge sounda litttle hollow today because there's far too little still to show for it. And now we’re seeing another pledge for the next 500 days? And what then? Should we simply expect another pledge, or another statement of intent?

Perhaps this sounds unfair, but we’re far from sure that it is. Last November the Stop TB Partnership and MSF (those same co-authors of the ‘Step Up for TB’ campaign) published the results of the first ever survey reviewing the true status of countries’ adoptions of the WHO's TB policies and guidelines. They published them in their ‘Out of Step’ Report, a document which surveyed the situation in 24 strategically important countries, all with big TB problems. Fifteen of the 24, for instance are on the WHO’s list of 22 so-called TB High Burden Countries (HBCs), and 13 of them are on the WHO’s other list of 27 so-called High Burden MDR-TB Countries (HBMDRTBCs).  (All of them except one are on one or other of these lists, and six were on both lists). In other words all of these are key countries in the battle against TB.

 In the report they took a look at how well these countries’ had adopted WHO policies and guidelines – basically assessing how they’re all doing in terms of responding to the WHO’s 1993 rallying cry that TB is a life and death global emergency, and also looking at how they were addressing the growth and threat of MDR-TB. These countries, we must stress, form the bulk of those which have had the most international focus directed on their epidemics (both by the global authorities and by international donors). As such it would be reasonable to expect that they’d be pretty up to date in their compliances with WHO recommendations and policies – as up to date, in fact, as any countries in the world.

Unfortunately the report shows that it’s not like that at all. Here’s one quote from the report as an for example:

 “No country has [yet] registered the full set of DR-TB medicines recommended by the WHO guidelines.”


The truth is that a national TB program needs a bunch of different drugs to properly respond to a TB epidemic. One group of drugs (Group 1) are effective for treating drug-susceptible disease (which is thankfully still the bulk of the pandemic), and then four more groups can eaxh come into play when the disease becomes resistant (usually a drug is selected from at least three groups to maximise chance of cure). Here’s the list of the groups of drugs:

Group 1: pyrazinamide, ethambutol, rifabutin, isoniazid, rifampicin, rifapentin
Group 2: kanamycin, amikacin, capreomycin, streptomycin
Group 3: levofloxacin, moxifloxacin, ofloxacin
Group 4: para–aminosalicylic acid, cycloserine, terizidone, ethionamide, prothionamide
Group 5: bedaquiline, delamanid, clofazimine, linezolid, amoxicillin/clavulanate,
thioacetazone, imipenem/cilastatin, high-dose isoniazid, clarithromycin.

Notwithstanding this registering of the drugs (or lack of it), it also transpires that only three of the 24 countries actually had all the medicines in these five groups even in their National Essential Medicine List (EML) and so would comply with the Global WHO Model List of Essential Medicines. In fact five of the countries didn’t even have one single complete group of any of these anti-MDR-TB drugs (i.e. in groups 2-5) in their EML.

So let’s tell this the way it is (and the way we think it should have been told at the UN when another bunch of politicians signed up to the wonderful sustainable development goals) or at the World Heath Assembly (when another bunch still merrily and unanimously endorsed the Plan to End TB by 2035 when they must of known it was a dream): no country, let alone any region of our world, is going to defeat this disease pharmaceutically by 2030 if they don’t have the necessary drugs to do so in their drug cabinets.

The reality, at least according to this report, is that none of these special countries has all the drugs they need registered for use, and only three have all of them on their EML. Of the remaining countries, a shameful five of the 24 had only one complete group of anti-TB drugs on their national EML – the other four groups were incomplete. A further four countries had just two complete groups, and five countries had only three complete groups. And truly shockingly, five countries (India, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Kenya and Zimbabwe) didn’t have a single complete group of any of the MDR-TB drugs on their EML – with the first three of these hanging out there in the WHO’s HBMDR-TBC list (with India being one of them with the dubious honour of being home to the most MDR-TB cases in the world).

And then this gets worse.

Only “half of the countries surveyed” says the report, “have guidelines in place to allow the initiation of DR-TB treatment at district level” – in other words in these countries MDR-TB treatment will only be administered to MDR patients at their major city centres.

And we still hope to see TB ended by 2030?

At least there's been some good news appearing in the media in the last couple of years on TB - on the ‘much needed and long overdue new TB drug’ front. Bedaquiline received accelerated approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in 2012, and then delamanid received approval from the European Medicines Agency and Japan’s Pharmaceuticals Medical Devices Agency in 2014 - the first new TB drugs appearing in the last fifty years. So how are these two new drugs being received out there in these critical countries where TB and MDR-TB is entrenched? Are patients seeing them as they should be (and as they certainly would be in high-income countries)? Well, according to the report only eleven of them even have national guidelines in place on the use of the first one (bedaquiline approved in 2012) – and only four had national guidance on delamanid. That’s some enthusiastic response in the countries where patients most need them…

The report looked at this same thing another way as well. They surveyed each country in accordance with four different criteria for their capacity to address MDR-TB: whether they had a national policy on bedaquiline, and whether they had a policy on delaminid (as discussed immediately above); but also whether they had an essential medicines list which included drug groups 2-5; and finally whether they had either new or repurposed drugs available for compassionate use. Four of the 24 countries failed on all four counts (two of these being HBMDR-TBCs); seven of the 24 failed on three of the four criteria (four of whom were HBMDR-TBCs). And only one country out of all 24 met all of them – so let’s name it because they deserve an accolade: it was Belarus.

Okay, we hear you say - so here they are banging on about MDR-TB. But it’s only a small proportion of the pandemic, after all, and the WHO say it isn't really rising: surely the rest of the disease must be being handled better…?

Well (leaving aside what the true state of the MDR pandemic may really be) the report took a look at DOTS – the very cornerstone of the WHO global TB strategy (‘Daily Observed Treatment Short Course’). As part of this policy the WHO, the report explains, recommends daily dosing “wherever feasible”.

Bizarrely, though, India and China still recommend intermittent therapy for DS-TB instead of daily therapy (with these two countries alone accounting for almost 40% of the estimated global burden of TB). In fact, six of the 24 countries surveyed reported still using intermittent treatment. In other words a quarter of these countries with global focus directed on their well-recognised epidemics for nearly two decades don’t see fit even to properly implement DOTS.

And what about the standard Group 1 drugs themselves? Well, since 2010 the WHO guidelines have recommended so-called “fixed-dose combinations” (FDCs) of these for the optimal treatment of drug-susceptible TB. In the 'Out of Step' report, however, three countries (India [again!], the Russian Federation and Ukraine) were reported as not using FDCs as their preferred formulations in their national guidelines. Why on earth are any HBCs still using FDCs let alone any others?

Since 2010 the WHO have also not recommended the empirical use of the ‘Category II’ regimen for re-treatment TB cases. (Category II adds streptomycin as a single additional agent to a standard four-drug Group 1 combo when it’s seen to be failing). We should add that in our humble opinion this practice shouldn’t just not be recommended – it should be immediately globally banned because it’s long been accepted that adding a single drug to a failing multi-drug regimen for TB likely amplifies drug-resistance. Whatever the case, the report records that only “ten [of the 24] countries are in line with WHO guidance” on this aspect. Dear God – fourteen of 24 critical countries still use a regimen that is known to potentially stoke drug-resistance?

It’s looking pretty bad, isn’t it? Actually the report itself could even be accused of understating how bad it is, cautiously qualifying that Category II has been shown to have “poor outcomes” in countries with high background rates of MDR-TB. For “poor outcomes”, we’d say it would be more accurate to have said ‘more dead patients along with more avoidable untreatable infectious airborne disease’.

In fact this looks even worse when we read in the report that Category II is still recommended by both India and China (these countries together having 40% of the total estimated burden of TB - or about four million new cases each year) and both also with recognised existing high burdens of MDR-TB (Well - surprise, surprise…).

Any reader of these blogs will be aware that we are more prone to direct the focus of our concerns at the WHO in Geneva. This blog’s a little different in this respect: whilst we think it’s still quite reasonable, in the light of the report, to suggest that WHO’s officers on the ground might have been making a lot more effort to influence policies and implementation of TB treatment in these key countries, we find ourselves focusing our admonishments at health ministers of these countries and at the managers of their national TB programs. Twenty-two years into a Global Emergency there can be NO excuses at all for what’s still going on out there. This is still a shameful response to an ongoing public health disaster.

So if parliamentarians are now seeing it as a good thing to be seen to be getting stuck into this issue, then we say “Well and good, and not a moment too soon!”.. but we'll take this back if it all ends up changing too little too late. Not if we see another deadline being set behind another deadline, and another pledge made as if an earlier one had never been made. There's a mountain to climb here. It can be climbed for sure but it needs real political will and resource. Dr Joanne Carter nailed it last week when she explained how TB “has climbed the list of major killers”. She said that it’s simply “because it is at the bottom of the list of political priorities". She’s Executive Director of RESULTS and Vice-Chair of the Stop TB Partnership Board, and she should know.

So please, politicians to step on up in your caucuses -  but make sure that we see you staying standing for the duration - staying there for TB till we see this disease properly defeated. The whole world’s need to start watching.












World TB Day 2016 - and 'bending those curves'..

It's World TB Day 2016, a full 23 years since TB was declared a Global Emergency, and FINALLY we are seeing some heat being turned up on this treatable disease (with the unmistakable handwriting of the inspirational Dr Lucia Ditiu of the Stop TB Partnership evident in almost every initiative). There's good reason to rejoice, but there’s still little reason to believe that the tide in this war has even really turned, let alone ebb away more quickly. 

A major new initiative is the Stop TB partnership’s new five year Plan for 2020, complete with its catchy slogan (the ‘90-(90)-90’ target). What's being demanded now is what's being called a ‘paradigm shift’ in thinking about TB. We hate to say this, though, but there's still way too little evidence of new paradigmatic thinking about TB.

The intention now is to “bend the curve” of what is a painfully slow decline in disease, bending it more steeply downwards so that the disease can be finally brought to its knees within a generation rather than festering on for another hundred or more years. It’s been hailed as an ‘ambitious’ strategy and it surely is. It can also succeed if it’s really well managed, but unfortunately we see a fundamental deficiency at its very heart and we fear that this flaw is more reflective of old-style TB thinking rather than of anything resembling the necessary paradigm shift. Highlighting this deficiency today might not be so welcome to the authors of the Plan who want to see everything done to add to the new momentum, but we believe that failing to do so is more likely to help see the Plan derailed than to see it stay on track to its anticipated end.

So here's the fundamental weak spot:

All of the post-2015 targets published so far are talking about TB as if it’s a single disease when it’s not.

What TB is today is an infectious disease which comprises three sub-diseases that are so clinically distinct from each other that we should be seeing them individually – each one requiring different targets, different drugs, different diagnostics, different resources and different strategies. It’s responding to this reality, we think, that's the real paradigm shift thinking that’s now needed.

Here’s what we mean...

If we see the disease as a single whole we can usefully represent it as an ‘all- TB’ pandemic with its associated total prevalence, incidence and mortality rates. Actually this is exactly how the state of disease is most regularly reported (with its most recent numbers being 13 million, 9.5 million and 1.5 million respectively). But what's so easily forgotten is that this ‘all-TB’ pandemic comprises not just the strains which are susceptible to the standard drugs, but also the ones which aren’t.

Meanwhile, at the core of this new End TB Strategy is a single curve, the trajectory of which is currently being reported to be sloping downwards at around 1.6% each year. (Even this far into the Emergency it’s believed that we’re still missing more than a third of all-TB cases each year and largely because of this the pandemic is not dropping as fast as it could be.)

What's now suggested is that this single curving trajectory (of the whole pandemic) can now be bent further downwards by finding those missing millions and then treating them more effectively. We have no issue at all with this idea, but we’re worried that this won’t end the pandemic as is anticipated and we’ll try to explain why.

Here’s the recently published WHO’s graph of how this curve is intended to be bent downwards.

                             Graph #1: the End TB Plan's graph showing how TB will 'end' by 2035.

                             Graph #1: the End TB Plan's graph showing how TB will 'end' by 2035.

Look first at the higher dotted line. This shows the current global trend of the whole all-TB pandemic with a downward trajectory of a little less than 2% a year (which is what’s been being consistently reported for the last ten years). A solid line is planned to split off from it in a year or so and this shows what’s hoped will happen as the new End TB Strategy begins to take effect. The decline should begin to accelerate to around 10% a year, and then accelerate further in 2025 to average an annual decline of 17%.

Viewing the disease in this way very reasonably leads us to believe that the disease can be seen off as a whole by 2035 - largely with some more efficient use of existing interventions in the first ten years, and then with a new vaccine in the second.

But this model completely ignores something important: it ignores the individual dynamics of those three subordinate parts of the ‘all-TB’ pandemic which comprise the whole. If we choose to see the disease without ignoring this then we don’t actually have a single curve to bend downwards at all: we end up with four of them which makes things a lot more challenging.

So here’s a similar simple graph to illustrate this. It’s directly reflective of the first one, but incorporates four separate lines, each one reflective of a component estimable part of the pandemic.

               Graph #2: disaggregating the pandemic into its drug-susceptible and drug-resistant parts

               Graph #2: disaggregating the pandemic into its drug-susceptible and drug-resistant parts


Exactly as in the first graph the top line is reflective of 'all-TB' (the dotted line of the first graph). It’s the existing decline of the ‘all-TB’ pandemic dropping at just under 2% a year.

The second line reflects the largest proportion of this wider pandemic. This is the disease which is sensitive or susceptible to the standard DOTS drugs regimen (in other words that’s curable by the standard one-size-fits all approach) – we can call this ‘drug-susceptible’, or DS-TB for short. This is currently estimated to comprise 95% of the existing pandemic (though we’re sure it must be really be a bit less than this), and it’s curable in at least nine out of ten cases.

We can be confident that this second DS-TB curve is already be dropping downwards a little faster than the top ‘all-TB’ line – that one which represents the whole pandemic. This is because we know that the first curve of ‘all-TB’ in the graph above must inevitably contain the estimated 5% of the pandemic that's now MDR (a very significant majority of which is neither detected nor treated).

We need to acknowledge something at this point. We are NOT epidemiologists, nor are we expert mathematical modellers. Such expertise relies on complex algebraic calculations which were not attempting to emulate here. Because we're far from sure that these experts are presenting the whole diverse picture of this huge global health threat, we're simply applying what we consider to be simple logic and a little basic maths. And please be assured - we will be only too relieved if the results of our projections can be successfully challenged because of what they suggest.

Because you will see that we also have a third (red) line on our graph. This one represents the ‘other’ 5% - the proportion of the disease that’s resistant to at least the two strongest DOTS drugs (and which therefore isn’t curable by standard treatment nor is 'normally' diagnosable). At least 75% of these MDR cases are never diagnosed (and in we believe that it’s probably substantially more), and of those that are diagnosed and put on treatment less than half of them currently enjoy successful outcomes. It’s a very different story indeed o that of the line immediately above it.

Given the low detection rates and the poor treatment outcomes (using the WHO’s own published data) we’re sure that this line must be rising. The WHO, for reasons that we can't figure out, reckon that it's not. We're simply no longer prepared to accept this as a logical possibility, and actually we suggest that this proportion of the pandemic could logically be rising at around 10% a year (something which we discuss further shortly). So this is how we’ve pitched its trajectory in the graph above.

And finally we have a fourth line - the proportion of the disease that's resistant to even more of the anti-TB drugs, including at least two that we might first want to use in any alternative drug regimen to DOTS. This is XDR-TB - what Mario Raviglione, the WHO’s TB czar has called “the worst thing we could have imagined”. It’s currently being officially estimated that this part of the pandemic comprises just under 10% of the MDR component of the pandemic – which effectively means that it’s currently believed comprise about 0.5% of ‘all TB’. This may not sound like much at all, but it’s important to bear in mind that this type of TB is not just vastly more challenging to treat, it’s also vastly more dangerous, with treatment reported to only succeed in one-in-every five patients. Not only that, but the diagnostic capacity to actually diagnose and notify XDR-TB in most TB-endemic countries (let alone treat it) is in terrifyingly short supply, so logically it’s a certainty that this part of the pandemic is also rising, and it’s probable that it’s rising faster than MDR-TB. In our graph above we’ve pitched it as incrementally rising at a modest 0.5% more than the 10% rise we’re reckoning for MDR-TB. Because it starts from a much smaller number this makes it look a lot less threatening but, given everything we know about XDR-TB, we know that we should remain as alert to the trajectory of this curve as to any of the others.

 We should add that everything about XDR-TB numbers are currently terribly uncertain and we’ve included this line really only because it’s so important to show that it exists.

What we wanted to particularly focus on on this World TB Day is the way that the blue and the red lines converge around 2034, each one with an incident rate at this point of time of about 30/100,000. According to our graph we can suggest that if there are no other successful interventions there’s a likelihood that after this there will be more drug-resistant disease within the pandemic than there is disease that is drug-sensitive.

You may well think that our tentative extrapolations are extreme. They’re  certainly unapologetically tentative, but we’re not sure that they’re that extreme. David Dowdy, who is an associate professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert in MDR-TB epidemiology, is on record as saying that “scenarios in which MDR-TB rates double in 15-20 years are a reasonable expectation”. In the light of his expert opinion our extrapolation does look a little over-egged because, by using a 10% cumulative rise, our rates pretty much quadruple (not double) in a twenty year span. In the previous blog in this series, however, we put on record that six years ago the WHO itself was reckoning that MDR-TB was rising at around 9% a year. Not just that, but between 2000 and 2008 this sort of rise was being estimated to be pretty much the norm. Furthermore published data from South Africa has showed MDR-TB increasing more than four-fold in a period of just six years, with XDR-TB increasing a very scarey eighteen-fold in the same period. There is appalling uncertainty here. In fact, even if we stuck with David Dowdy’s scenario, these two lines would still converge before 2040, so unless anyone is able to confidently give us real numbers (which no-one can) we’re sticking with our extrapolations simply because they comprise an exercise in precautionary principles which we are convinced the precarious situation warrants.

Taking this further, we believe that the best way to prevent this convergence happening (in fact probably the only way to prevent it if the current successful trends in treating DS-TB are maintained and accelerated ) is to begin aggressively attacking this MDR portion of the pandemic immediately wherever we can to keep this third red line from rising. As such, prioritising and funding distinct MDR-TB programs should be an absolute fundamental part in any post-2015 strategy. What worries us is that we don’t see this in the current plan, not least because there are no distinct targets for TB yet set and the existing budgets won’t really allow for them anyway.

There are plenty of things that could change this of course. The most probable is that parts of the the End TB Strategy are successfully implemented, including “optimising current tools”, and “pursuinguniversal health coverage and social protection” as we saw above – but if this isn’t done without successfully and aggressively attacking MDR-TB in a way which hasn’t yet happened nor is yet planned, then actually we could even see the convergence happening even more quickly.

The next very simple graph attempts to illustrate this and unfortunately it shows both good news and bad..

Graph #3: Extrapolation of MDR-TB pandemic if the curve of 'all-TB is successfully bent downwards.

Graph #3: Extrapolation of MDR-TB pandemic if the curve of 'all-TB is successfully bent downwards.

In this graph we’ve left out the XDR-TB line for simple reasons of clarity, and we’ve bent the top blue line of ‘all-TB’ downwards to reflect the anticipated curve of the WHO’s graph (the solid line in the very first graph in this blog). This puts it in line with the Plan, with the number of new cases dropping from 9 million each year to around 2 million by 2030. Similarly to what we saw in our own second graph, the line of DS-TB now curves downwards even faster too, in fact it even looks like DS-TB could peter out into epidemiological insignificance sometime around 2030 (which by happy coincidence happens to be the SDG target date for ‘ending’ TB).

But we've not changed our MDR-TB line. It's the same as in the graph above, rising at 10% each year and so the convergence point at which drug-sensitive and drug-resistant TB become essentially equal in incidence will have already occurred around three years before DS-TB might peter out - in 2027. After this (because the DS-TB component will now be becoming so insignificant) the line of ‘all-TB’ can be expected to essentially follow that of MDR-TB and so will begin to rise again for the first time since around 2005.

In other words by around 2030 ‘all TB’ will have essentially become a single MDR pandemic – at an incidence rate of around 25/100,000 (or roughly four times what MDR-TB is today, but about a quarter of what ‘all-TB’ is).

Now this needn’t happen, and it won’t do if we anticipate its possibility and aggressively attack MDR disease at the same time as we attack the drug-susceptible pandemic. But we’re quite sure that something like this will happen if we don’t attack MDR-TB really vigorously starting today.

And this definitely can't happen unless we begin to confront the probable numerical realities of MDR-TB.

To the UN, the WHO and the Stop TB Partnership: where are the targets for MDR- and XDR-TB?

Today is the UN's World Day of Social Justice. It's been marked on February 20th each year since 2007 (in recognition that exclusion and inequality are both globally on the rise).

Well the right of access to effective treatment for MDR- and XDR-TB is undeniably an issue of social justice. It's one, as Joni Mitchell once put it, of "who gets the gravy, who gets the gristle, and who gets the marrow bone - and who gets nothing though there's plenty to share..."

Actually there's not much in the way of gravy at all really in treatment for DR-TB - unfortunately it's all pretty much gristle or worse - but there's far too many who get nothing at all in the way of treatment and then infect others before dying. 

So today we have to ask a question of the UN itself in New York - since incidentally it has set as one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) a target of ending TB by 2030.

In the hope of achieving this some specific targets have been set for the next 20 years. These targets were set by the WHO (unanimously endorsed by the World Health Assembly itself) and since then they've been developed by the Stop TB Partnership. So we ask the same question of these august organisations in Geneva as well. (They've set some ambitious targets for sure, but they reflect 'all TB' with not a mention of MDR or XDR disease.) 

We ask this:

Where are the targets for these most dangerous and poorly addressed parts of the 'all-TB' pandemic - for MDR- and XDR-TB? Because we can't see them anywhere. 

Some certainly existed previously in the targets that were set by the Stop TB partnership for 2015. Unfortunately each one of them was abjectly missed. So is that why they don't exist within the current strategies to defeat this ancient disease? Surely that can't be the reason, can it?

We don't know - nor do we understand why no-one out there is screaming about this -especially because MDR- and XDR-TB pose the greatest threat of all to exactly those one (or two) billion  who are most affected by exactly that exclusion and inequality that the UN (particularly today) acknowledges exist.

So here's our own scream on the UN's World Day of Social Justice:


How to manage a drug-resistant pandemic? (2) Estimating the burden of disease at a national level…

In the previous blog we discussed the ways that the WHO generally use to estimate the proportion of the global TB pandemic that's drug-resistant, concluding that the method seems to be fundamentally flawed and that it's almost certainly dangerously under-estimating the threat.

 In contrast, in this blog we take a look at one particular country – at South Africa – and we examine  how the estimates for MDR-TB and the notified numbers are being incoherently represented and reported for it. We then explore some of the reasons behind these variations. Some of them relate directly to the previous Blog (How to manage a drug-resistant pandemic? [1]);  but mostly they seem to expose fresh issues of concern.

In the most recent WHO Global TB report (published late in 2015) the WHO’s estimate of the burden of MDR-TB for this rainbow nation was 6,200 incident cases (comprising 4,700 new and 1,500 re-treatment cases). This can be seen in the upper ringed text in the graphic below which is reproduced from page 141 of the WHO’s most recent Report. It’s very important to bear in mind that this number is the one that’s used to help build the estimate of MDR-TB for the African region, and also, therefore, for the whole world.

So far so good, but with only a minute’s further review of this same graphic we can spot an embarrassingly large South African elephant in a roomin Geneva because we can see (in the lower ringed text) that the number of actually reported laboratory confirmed cases of MDR-TB for the same year was 18,734 – or pretty much three times the published estimated number. Unless expert opinion considers the country’s laboratory-confirmed bacteriological data to be gobbledygook (which it doesn’t), this makes the WHO’s estimate of MDR burden for South Africa a de facto statistical impossibility.

Of course any proper estimate of incidence for a disease like TB has to always include the number of cases that are believed to be being missed by the national TB program (which globally was a worrying 37% in the last Report, but for South Africa it was a bit less at 32%). In any imaginable scenario, of course, this total must always be higher than the number of reported cases, but in this instance it’s not – it’s a lot less.

Might we have got this wrong? Well we know that we haven’t because we tried to resolve this anomaly with two WHO experts in Geneva and also two experts in South Africa. All of them were helpful, but nothing got resolved and our concerns were actually left considerably more acute at the end of their efforts.  

The two South African experts explained that enormous efforts have been made to improve general epidemiological intelligence regarding to their national epidemic. And they reckoned that about about 18,000 (or between 15,000 and 20,000) incident reported MDR cases is "close to the truth" for the country. Furthermore they didn't think that many MDR-TB cases who were attending for treatment were being missed (largely because of the roll-out of GeneXpert diagnostic device). And as a result we agree that the case detection rate for MDR in this country can be quite reasonably assumed to be similar to that for all-TB (i.e. 68% which is far higher than the 26% which is the optimistic global average).

So we tried running this same estimate using the principles described in Method I as described in the previous blog, using the notified number of cases and then inflating it by using a case detection rate that (in this case) we’re pretty confident with. Our calculation runs as follows: 18,734 divided by 68 multiplied by 100. This gave us 27,750 which is certainly a lot more than the WHO's estimate of just 6,200 - in fact it's four-and-a-half times more.

 What initially alerted us to all of this were these curious percentages of new and re-treatment MDR cases that have year-on-year been being entered for South Africa in the WHO Reports. Thestwo percentages have for the past years always been 1.8% of all cases for new TB cases and 6.7% of retreatment ones (which you can also see in that graphic above in the upper ringed text). We noted that these percentages are a lot less than the most recent global percentages which were 3.3% and 20% respectively and that this would suggest, therefore, that the rate of new MDR cases occurring in South Africa is around half the global average, and the rate of retreatment cases a third of it. Yet South Africa is not only recognised as a high burden MDR-TB country by the WHO itself, it’s also widely recognised to have an MDR-TB problem that is out of control. As such these consistently reported percentages just don’t add upfor us at all.

With the help of the WHO experts we managed to establish that these percentage estimates actually relate to a survey that was carried out in 2002 so are obviously way out of date. This may well be the explanation, but we still don’t understand why they haven’t been adjusted by a single point in the thirteen years since. Not just this, but we are appalled that they could still be used to calculate the numbers which are then fed into both regional and global estimates of MDR-TB, despite their being fundamentally meaningless to the current state of the pandemic and so misleading. To put it bluntly they render any resulting estimate of the regional and global MDR pandemic illegitimate.

A couple of simple sums can prove that these percentages have indeed been used, incidentally. The total estimated number of new all-TB cases in South Africa for 2014 (the year reported on in the 2015 Report) was 261,955, and 1.8% of cases gives us one the numbers that appear in the graphic above (4,700). Meanwhile the total estimated number of relapsed or previously treated was 22,716, and 6.7% of this number also gives us the second number entered above (1,500). So we can confirm that the estimated percentages for 2002 have been used to misleadingly calculate the MDR estimates for this country in 2015 and in every other year since 2002.

As mentioned above, we’ve not been given any acceptable explanation as to why these percentages from the 2002 survey haven’t ever been adjusted by expert opinion. We have learnt, however, that there was supposed to have been another drug-resistant survey conducted in the meantime (though we don’t know why it never happened). But we’ve also learnt that the results of a new and long-overdue survey are nowimminent. From the existing correspondence, however, we understand that the experts in Geneva aren’t expecting the existing percentages to change much in the new survey. It’s not at all clear how this can possibly be the case, but it’s what we’ve been told nevertheless.

But let’s go back to the actual numbers for a minute. If we accept that the South African 18,734 MDR laboratory notifications are correct (and if we assume most of them to be pulmonary which we think is probable), we can compute this number as a percentage of the current Report's 261,955 notified new pulmonary cases, and then we can calculate that the overall percentage of TB in the country is MDR may be 7%. This is higher than the overall global average which is 5.5%, and it’s a lot nearer what we’d expect it to be.  

We appreciate that there’s a lot of detail here and a also lot of tentative playing around with the numbers. Some of it may be difficult to appreciate in a single read, but we want any reader to understand that all we're doing is trying to apply some logic to a quite illogical report. We're sure that submitting illogical and misleading numbers into regional and global estimates isn't be any way of monitoring and responding to a drug-resistant pandemic which also includes XDR-TB – what Mario Raviglione of the WHO himself calls the “worst thing we could have imagined”. The idea that these percentages can be so casually misrepresented actually appals us, not least because of what it implies for other neighbouring countries given known migratory patterns and their comparative lack of resources in comparison to South Africa.

Such concerns are even more worrying when it’s appreciated how acutely aware of this risk the WHO was in earlier years. Back in 2009 several top TB experts in the WHO presented a paper at the Union Conference in Mexico. They reckoned that 75,000 new MDR cases were probably occurring that year in the African region (i.e. more than twice what they reckoned for the region last year!) – and bear in mind this was six years ago. This wasn’t even a one-off: the year before that (in a specialist WHO Report on MDR-TB) the number of new African cases was reckoned at 69,000, so it would appear that six years ago the WHO was comfortable in suggesting that the incidence of African MDR might have increased by 9% in a single year. Since then, though, the picture that’s been presented hasn’t just been flatlining (which is what’s happened for the global picture) - for Africa it appears to have actually collapsed! The current Report estimated that only 32,000 new African MDR cases emerged in the last reported year (albeit pulmonary-only) – in other words it seems to be being belived that there’s been a reduction in African MDR-TB of over 50% in five years. Can this possibly be the case given everything we know about MDR-TB? Of course it can’t.

But here’s one further calculation.

The recent Report also recorded 25,531 MDR cases being notified in the Africa region (18,734 of whom we already know were South African), which leaves less than 7,000 for the whole of the rest of the region. Of course this is nonsense as well, but it’s all in there in the reported numbers and it’s there partly because of those thirteen year-old South African percentages, of course! 

But then we know we’re all only pretending at this anyway because the surveillance is so poor. So let's finally pretend for a minute in this way: if the WHO’s 75,000 estimate of 2009 was right and the regional epidemic has been rising at 9% a year the total number of new cases of TB that are MDR in Africa can’t possibly be 32,000; it could easily be over 100,000...

 This might not be such nonsense as it first sounds because that WHO 2008 specialist MDR Report made a very serious statement indeed. It suggested that the incident rates of MDR-TB in “some southern African countries” might have then been “5-6 times higher than that of China or India”. This seems to us to be a sentence which was deliberately worded to alert the world to a drug-resistant disaster that the organisation realised threatened the region. Currently, however, no country in the African region is being reported to have percentages of MDR-TB that are even equal to the global average let alone above it. Something seems to have changed in the last six years.

But is it in Africa that something might have changed wthout being properly reported, or is it in Geneva?

How to manage a drug-resistant pandemic (1) - estimating the global burden

For some time we’ve been struggling to figure out how the WHO has been reporting that the proportion of MDR-TB hasn’t been rising (or at least that it has “changed little in recent years”). This isn’t just for the last couple of years, by the way, it’s been reported it this way for about a decade - in fact for almost half of the period during which TB has been an official Global Emergency. In 1993, when the emergency was first declared, MDR-TB was hardly being taken seriously at all – but it’s not always been that way because thirteen years later it was – as the WHO/StopTB’s own graphic from 2006 (shown below) clearly demonstrates:

WHO graphic from 2006 identifying the global burden of MDR-TB

WHO graphic from 2006 identifying the global burden of MDR-TB

The WHO’s most recent estimated number of new cases (for 2014) was 480,000 (i.e. 9,000 less), with the death toll estimated at 180,000 (i.e. 60,000 more, probably because the success rate of treating MDR-TB has been significantly downgraded in the past decade). Meanwhile the number of XDR-TB cases was estimated last year at about 46,560, and the death toll from XDR-TB wasn’t even guessed at (which is hardly surprising since the infrastructure required to diagnose (let alone treat) XDR-TB is almost invisible in TB endemic countries).

Let’s put our cards on the table. We’re sure that the real drug-resistant numbers are much higher today than the WHO estimates that are being published and here are just a few reasons why:

-          Between 2006 and 2015 the number of countries reporting at least a single case of XDR-TB has more than doubled from 49 to 105.

           In 2008 MDR-TB rates approached “25% in several Eastern European countries; now some are over 50%.

-          The recorded success rates of treating MDR-TB has dropped 2006-15(from 67% to 50%).

-          MDR-TB is believed to be just as infectious as ‘normal’ TB (but with 'normal' TB being successfully treated in 87% of cases, but MDR only successfully treated 50% of the time).

-          The relative case detection rates of drug-resistant disease is still (at the very best) just 26% as opposed to 63% for all-TB.

-          Meanwhile the latest outcome data for MDR-TB patients (for the 2011 global cohort) comprised just 25,319 patients (or less than 6% of the WHO's estimated new MDR cases for that year) suggesting that the data that’s available is extremely poor.

-          And, as we’ll see below, the way that these estimates of new MDR cases are prepared for most countries where TB is endemic is flawed.

Everything tells us that the proportion of MDR-TB must have been increasing in the last decade, although bafflingly no-one seems keen to challenge the WHO’s suggestion that it isn’t. Well we’ve taken our own look and we think we’ve unearthed a couple of reasons why the WHO’s numbers keep spitting out the way they do. It’s a little complicated unfortunately so we ask you to bear with us while we do our best to explain and expose why this is so.

The background

The first global and country-specific estimates of the drug-resistant disease burden associated with TB were published by WHO in 2001. It was estimated then that there'd been 272,906 new cases of MDR-TB globally the previous year (in 2000). The number estimated for 2004 rose to 424,203, a rise of 55% in four years - although this was partly explained as being because this estimate included incident cases of MDR-TB “among previously treated TB cases as well as those diagnosed for the first time”. (It’s not clear exactly, however, why these cases weren’t included in the earlier numbers because clearly they should have been). As we can see in the graphic above, however, the number estimated for 2006 was 489,000 – so there was estimated to have been a further 15% rise in the next two years. So we think that there’s more than reasonable evidence within the WHO’s own earlier numbers that MDR numbers were rising pretty fast, at least by 7% each year. Since then, however, something appears to have changed for no logical reason because, during this last decade, these estimated numbers first dropped (the estimate issued for 2008 was 440,000) and since then they've barely risen in spite of all of those simultaneously-published poor detection rates, the consistently poor treatment roll-outs and the dropping success rates, all of which normally would contribute to a growing pandemic. And the WHO reckons that the state of the MDR pandemic is “essentially unchanged from previous years”.

So how the numbers are actually being estimated?

Ideally, each country’s burden of MDR-TB should be being estimated from national drug-resistant surveys (DRS). Unfortunately resources dictate otherwise (and in the next blog in this sequence we’ll be looking at what can happen when one of them does have data from a DRS).

The reality is that most TB endemic countries have no valid data on MDR-TB, and for them the WHO have two ways of estimating MDR. They then put the two methods together using each to validate the other. (This can all be found in detail on , a document which was published by the WHO in 2014). By combining these two estimates the WHO establishes its annual global estimate.

In the example that’s given in this document itself these two methods do roughly correlate with each other so at first glance it looks like a useful technique: one method came in with a global total of 450,000, the other 420,000. But should we accept that the estimates which this methodology produce are correct given the anomalous implication of what this implies (that this pandemic is stagnating when logic suggests it must be on the rise)? Sure, if this way of developing the estimate is indeed correct then the disease must indeed be stagnating and we have less to fear from it. But if it’s wrong then the problem may be far more serious than is reported.

 So what exactly do these methods consist of?

Well, the first method approximates the total estimated number MDR-TB incident cases (new cases) by first adding together the number of notified MDR-TB cases from among the three distinct types of TB case notifications (‘new all forms’, ‘relapse all forms’, and ‘all retreatments that are not relapse forms’). Such case notifications are those which are diagnosed and notified by national TB programs, however, so they can't comprise any estimation of all new MDR cases. In order to approximate a more realistic grand total, therefore, this initial sum is then “inflated upwards by the estimated amount of incident cases not identified by the surveillance system, for all forms of TB”. We enter this as a direct quote from the document referred to above not just so that we leave no doubt about it, but also because the last five words (in bold) exposes the invalidity of the method itself. As anyone who knows anything about TB knows, the number of infectious TB cases “not identified by the surveillance system” vary dramatically between the different forms of TB. For ‘all-TB’, for instance, it’s most recently been pegged at 63%. For MDR-TB, however it’s reported as being about 26% (and actually we’d suggest it’s almost certainly a lot less than this). But the document is unembarrassed about this anomaly explicitly stating that: “The number of incident MDR-TB cases missed by the surveillance system is assumed to be the same as that for drug susceptible TB, and does not vary according to retreatment categories” with this assumption made in full knowledge of the vast discrepancy between the two estimated case detection rates.  

To give an idea of what this means, let’s run some numbers. Let’s say we found  a total of 100 new cases of MDR-TB and notified them to the WHO, using the method above we would then divide it by 63 (for the 63% global detection rate) and then multiply it by 100 to ‘inflate it upwards’ to the final figure. This makes for 159 estimated new cases. If we used the 26% case detection rate, however, the same calculation would be: 100 divided by 26, and then multiplied by 100. This makes a total of 384.  We can see from this exercise that factoring the number of notified cases by “the estimated amount of incident cases not identified by the surveillance system for all forms of TBthus makes a total that is only about 40% of what it might really be. The implication of this is immense – it could mean that a more accurate estimate of new cases of MDR-TB each year isn’t half a million – it’s actually nearer 1.2 million, and it would certainly mean that this pandemic is on the rise.

 So much for method I... But we already know that the two methods apparently corroborate each other, so maybe we’re wrong about this. So what about the second method?

Method II estimates MDR-TB incidence as “the ratio of the number of MDR-TB deaths divided by the MDR-TB case fatality rate (expressed as a proportion)”. The problem, of course, is that there still aren’t any decent measurements of MDR-TB deaths because there aren’t any reliable numbers of MDR cases being reported in the first place. Because of this a more indirect method of assessing this has total to be used instead. The WHO’s alternative  number-crunching is therefore done as follows: Method II total  is estimated by using the “ overall deaths from TB, [multiplied by] the overall proportion of TB cases that have MDR-TB (approximated by the weighted average of the proportion of new and retreated cases that have MDR-TB, as calculated from DR surveys or continuous surveillance), and [in turn multiplied by] the relative risk of dying among people with MDR-TB compared with those without MDR-TB (estimated from a systematic review that included data from twenty-five studies)”.

This is all a bit of a mouthful, but we can see from the parts we’ve highlighted in bold text is that the first factor that this second estimate is fundamentally dependent upon is the “proportion of cases that have MDR”. And of course this proportion was a part of Method I which means that any factor of error could be the same! In other words, the flaw in the first method is passed on to become the flaw in the second. The second method could similarly spit our an estimate that is just 40% of reality.

But there is another flaw with this second method because this calculation also includes the incorporation of ‘ICD-10’. ICD-10 is the international classification of diseases which was adopted by the WHO in 1992 in relation to reporting mortality statistics. It’s used by statisticians to code the underlying cause of every death with specific concern for matters relating to public health. Basically this means that a death can only ever be attributed (as far as this coding is concerned) to one disease – and, because of the threat of the HIV pandemic at the time the code was finalised, it was determined back in the 90s that if an individual died HIV-positive then their death should be coded only to HIV/AIDS whatever might have been the actual the cause of their death. By using ICD-10 the real reductions that have recently been recorded in TB deaths have been inevitably exaggerated (suggesting, for example, that the targets for reducing TB deaths by 2015 were nearly met, when they were actually far adrift of it because they didn’t include HIV/TB deaths).

In similar fashion the document states that its calculations of MDR-TB mortalities use TB mortality numbers “defined as the number of deaths caused by TB in HIV-negative people, according to the latest revision of the International classification of diseases (ICD-10).” Because of this the resulting calculations don’t include any TB deaths in individuals who are co-infected with HIV which inevitably further skews the final figures, especially where there are high rates of co-infection (i.e. in the African region where currently rates of MDR-TB are, perhaps unsurprisingly, being estimated to be so unexpectedly low...).

Actually, when classified using ICD-10, 26% of all estimated TB deaths worldwide must fall into this category of ‘HIV deaths’ (and most will be African). This amounts to 400,000 annual deaths from TB which don’t get coded as TB deaths at all – and so definitely won’t get counted as TB deaths in this second method described above.

There's one further issue relating to ICD-10, unfortunately. Using ICD-10 a death is only coded as one if the casualty was bacteriologically confirmed as sputum positive before death. This makes a TB coded death harder to maker than a TB diagnosis, simply because about half of all notified cases are diagnosed despite being sputum negative because of symptoms - because the sputum test is known to be so unreliable. Once again, we can predict a skewing of the numbers.

So can we conclude that the WHO’s suggestion that it has “no evidence” that the proportion of the pandemic that is MDR is on the rise is dundamenetally questionable? We think we can because it'sased on a system of reporting and estimating that is fundamentally flawed and which needs to be urgently revised if this pandemic is to be taken seriously.

The solution, of course, is to implement national drug-resistant surveys, though these are expensive and are, in any case, sometimes also far from as reliable as might be wished.

In the next blog we will explore exactly this. We’ll discuss a case study, reviewing the MDR-TB numbers that are both estimated and reported for South Africa – and we'll show show how terribly wrong things can go if they’re allowed to – even with the help of a national drug resistance survey. 

In hope for 2016...

Even an intermittent reader of these blogs will know that the underlying themes of our blogs revolve around our struggles to make coherent sense of all that’s evolving in the world of TB. We recently made special efforts to explain some of our confusions to the WHO itself in Geneva. Amongst other things we tried to describe what we experience as a ‘curtain’ existing between two specific types of stakeholders in the fight against this disease. On the inside of the curtain there are the likes of the WHO itself, the Stop TB Partnership, the Global Caucus (of parliamentarians), USAIDS,, and even the likes of MSF and PIH. All of these appear have a good handle on the precariousness of the situation and have good access to each other. On the outside we have the small NGOs, activist groups like the Treatment Action Group [TAG], charities like ourselves, individual clinicians and patients and their families – all of whom comprise so-called ‘civil society’ which is being invited to crucially engage itself in helping to turn the tide of this disease. And all of these agencies and individuals certainly have an instinctive idea of what’s unravelling with TB but we encounter nowhere near enough coherency in the facts that are presented for us to get a true picture of what’s happening and therefore how best we should respond.

In fact we believe that this ‘curtain’ is actually stymying the sort of quality of activism that’s now needed to help turn the tide of this pandemic. Whilst everyone on both sides of this imaginary ‘curtain’ certainly share the same fundamental goal (which is the earliest possible elimination of this curable disease) it’s certainly not the case that everyone is as privy to the same epidemiological intelligence. What worries us most, however, is that this gap of knowledge may be sometimes being deliberately engendered for reasons of political expediency.

Another thing that anyone who’s been reading these blogs will know is that far too much of the intelligence that is available is (at least on this side of the curtain if not on both) too incoherent for it to be appropriately useful.

Over this Christmas period, however, we’ve encountered some fresh incoherencies – but these aren’t appearing in the data this time. They're in the political sphere – specifically in relation to the recent publication of the U.S. public policy on tuberculosis.

Nearly two months ago (on 3rd November) 642 American TB experts wrote an open letter to President Obama. Co-ordinated by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American Thoracic Society, its message was pretty direct:  “We urge you [Mr President] to formally release the Plan to Combat Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis that your administration announced earlier this year … and to follow release of the Plan with a budget request that will support its implementation.”

We weren’t at all sure what this Plan was about but we were immediately interested so we read on.

It implored: “A plan is needed now, complete with research and development and programmatic goals and outcomes and a proposed budget, beginning in fiscal year 2017, that will ensure its implementation and success.” And their final message to the President was blunt: “Global leadership to respond to drug-resistant tuberculosis is long overdue.”

This all actually sounded very encouraging: some sort of ‘Plan’ must surely be in the pipeline but it sounded like it must be encountering some final delays so these doctors were trying to chivvy things along. There even seemed to be a possibility that President Obama was about to stake his political leadership in the struggle against TB! But once we started peering further around our fabled ‘curtain’ to find out more we came across something else which set our alarm bells ringing. It was a piece on the same subject of TB and relating to President Obama, and it was written by Joanne Carter of Results and it was published in the Washington Post just a week later on November 11th. She reported:

“The President’s proposed budget request has proposed slashing international funding for TB in each of the last four years including a planned cut for the year of $45 million from the previous budget level of $236 million.” [all bold type here and later is our own]

What?!! According to our numbers that pretty much amounted to an intended 20% cut in funding for TB, something which we found pretty shocking. Our concern was reinforced by a further sentence in Ms Carter’s piece which reported: “Public Health experts believe that … American government funding should be far higher than its current level.” Those public health experts clearly would include those 642 physicians who’s written that open letter, and we certainly agree with them.

“Fortunately,” Ms Carter continued, “Congress has recognised the essential role that the United States plays in combating the global threat of TB. Bipartisan opposition has rejected the proposed cuts.”  That at least was reassuring. But, while on December 16th it was reported that the USAID’s budget for TB for the 2016 financial year hadn’t been cut as had been intended by the President, it was still formally announced that it was being‘flatfunded’ at $236 million – i.e. set at the same level as in 2015 in spite of what those public health experts had said was needed.

We saw both a worrying an an encouraging picture emerging from all of this: here was a significant group of experts putting significant pressure on the U.S. President to reconsider his position. It’s something which could have given the whole world of TB activism a positive message for Christmas, but unfortunately it hardly gives us much cause to rejoice because the response amounted to a lot less than is needed. In fact the positive response that manifested had come from Congress and not from the President at all! So the critical issue for us all to consider as we enter 2016 is how public and how critical this sort of pressure can and should become for it to be as effective and game changing as it surely needs to be in the coming months.


The new National Plan for MDR-TB

Then a week ago, with three days to go before Christmas, the Obama administration finally got around to releasing its new Plan for MDR-TB. The White House PR department trumpeted it as “a comprehensive plan that identifies critical actions to be taken by key Federal departments and agencies to combat the global rise of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis”.

The Plan is organized around just three goals:

Goal 1: Strengthen Domestic Capacity to Combat MDR-TB. This goal relates to the efforts which are to be made within the United States itself. Each year just under 100 individuals are diagnosed with MDR-TB in the U.S., and the Plan’s aim for 2020 is to reduce this by 15%. Reducing a numerical incidence by just 15 cases-a-year over five years hardly seems much of an ambition when compared to the sort of challenges we’re contemplating elsewhere, but perhaps such a modest goal provides a reminder that the challenge of reducing incidence of this disease should never be underestimated.  

Goal 2: Improve International Capacity and Collaboration to Combat MDR-TB. This goal relates to the wider international efforts that are well recognised to be required from the United States (and other donor nations), particularly through strategic investments to broaden access to diagnosis and treatment. This surely should be seen as the most crucially important goal of the five year Plan.

Goal 3: Accelerate Basic and Applied Research and Development to Combat MDR-TB. This relates to R&D into new rapid diagnostics, into new shortened and less toxic drug regimens, and into new vaccines, all of which could and should be used both at home and abroad. 

It’s important to realise that this new Plan isn’t the first one that’s been developed by the U.S. government in order to combat MDR-TB. To date two other national action plans on MDR-TB have been published by the Center for Disease Control – one way back in 1992 and the other in 2009. Each one laid out its own goals for both prevention and for research -- but (and we feel it’s really very important to point this out since this is so relevant to the current Plan) they never got the funding to get off the ground for them to be implemented.

We feel we particularly need to stress this because the new Plan itself cautions that its own ultimate success will be “subject to budgetary constraints and other approvals, including the weighing of priorities and available resources by the Administration”. In other words, given the story of the previous Plans, and the administration’s own record of trying to cut its national TB budget in recent years, the new Plan comes with no guarantee at all that it will ever be usefully implemented.

But we also think that it’s worth recording what that very first National Action Plan to Combat Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis back in 1992 actually said. A full 23 years ago it made no bones at all about the threat that was faced – “At no time in recent history has tuberculosis (TB) been as great a concern as it is today. TB cases are on the increase, and the most serious aspect of the problem is the recent occurrence of outbreaks of multidrug-resistant (MDR) TB, which pose an urgent public health problem and require rapid intervention.”

The Plan itself then meticulously identified a full nine objectives that were believed needed to be met if MDR-TB was to be successfully contained (not just three like the current Plan). We think it’s worth listing them here exactly as they were listed nearly a quarter of a century ago because of what they collectively imply.

a)      surveillance and epidemiology -- determining the magnitude and nature of the problem;

b)      laboratory diagnosis -- improving the rapidity, sensitivity, and reliability of diagnostic methods for MDR-TB;

c)       patient management -- effectively managing patients who have MDR-TB and preventing patients with drug-susceptible TB from developing drug-resistant disease;

d)      screening and preventive therapy -- identifying persons who are infected with or at risk of developing MDR-TB and preventing them from developing clinically active TB;

e)      infection control -- minimizing the risk of transmission of MDR-TB to patients, workers, and others in institutional settings;

f)       outbreak control;

g)      program evaluation -- ensuring that TB programs are effective in managing patients and preventing MDR-TB;

h)      information dissemination/ training and education; and

i)        research to provide new, more effective tools with which to combat MDR-TB.

Not one of these objectives has yet been properly achieved. But for us it’s more striking still that the very first one is so bizarrely omitted from the current Plan (i.e. “the intention to determine the true magnitude and nature of the problem”). 

Surely, if there are just two things that we know about MDR-TB today, one is how little we still know about how much drug-resistant disease is really out there, and the other is where (or how) we should be properly starting to “improve International Capacity and Collaboration to Combat MDR-TB” (which is the second goal of last week’s National Plan). And such hapless lack of intelligence still persists a full twenty-three years down the road as much as the WHO may be quoting their 27 'high burden MDR-TB countries', so surely it should be the very first thing for the key donors now to be considering investing in if they want to see their money well spent. For us at least, the very first place to start (again) would be by implementing proper global surveillance and analysis.

Another part of the White House's proposal to deal with the disease is to “initiate treatment [by the end of 2016] for 25% of patients with MDR-TB in 10 countries with the highest burdens of MDR-TB”. Given that currently the WHO estimates (very optimistically indeed as far as we are concerned) that 20% of MDR-TB patients globally are already getting treatment, this hardly seems that ambitious or aggressive a target.

In fact, if we unpack this part of the proposal a little further, this offers us just another incoherence in the existing analyses of the estimated numbers (and in the consequent implementation of strategies): because what this appears to translate into (at least in terms of the new American National Plan) is an additional 200,000 MDR-TB cases being treated over the next five years, but these patients will mainly be in Russia, China and India–in three middle-income countries that currently self-fund most of their TB programs anyway. This is planned simply because these three countries are estimated to have the highest numerical burdens of MDR-TB (and they certainly all do have terrifying MDR epidemics). But none of these three huge nations (we believe) is among the ten nations where the highest proportional (not numerical) burdens of MDR-TB currently occur: all of these countries (we believe) are in southern Africa, and almost allare low-income ones. The problem, of course, is that no-one can either say or gainsay whether this opinion is true and this in turn is because the surveillance of MDR-TB (that very first item on the 1992 list of objectives) is still so appallingly deficient for this region.

Whether or not our suspicions about where the worst problems now lie are correct, this new National Action Plan (in its own words) also serves as a call to action for other bilateral and multilateral donors, private sector partners, and affected countries to further their investments in this critical area of worldwide concern”. Mario Raviglione, the WHO’s TB czar, has picked up on this. He’s described the new Plan as a bold move by the U.S. administration and he hopes that it will be followed “by a similar type of attitude and bold moves by other European countries. Especially in Europe, people are simply ignoring the fact that MDR-TB is at the border”. Let’s hope he’s right but with Europe confronting so many other acute problems on its borders, it’s difficult to be too confident in the broader judgement of Europe’s politicians.

Meanwhile for Joanne Carter, who wrote that piece in the Washington Post and who is also the executive director of Results, the National Plan that's emerged is much more than an example for countries in Europe or elsewhere. “We see it as a really important Christmas present,” she says now that she’s finally seen it. “We're really, honestly, just happy [it came out] ... in advance of final revisions of the 2017 budget.”

We guess we should be happy as well but we have to admit to being not quite so optimistic about those final revisions to the budgets. We know that the financial input, not just from the U.S. but from every other donor nation as well, is going to hold the key to any real success. We really hope that she’s right in how she sees it because otherwise in another twenty-three years we may be commenting on yet another National Plan responding to what has become an intractable drug-resistant pandemic that’s spiraled out of control because of lack of political will, which by then will almost certainly also have become the dominant part of the wider global tuberculosis pandemic.

We’re certain that it will now be down to the commitment and persistence of ‘civil society’ to maintain pressure on politicians to prise the appropriate funding out of their respective treasuries, and to ensure that this won’t be just turn out to be another empty pledge without proper implementation.

As Stop TB’s Lucica Ditiu advocates: “We can only end TB if we are willing to commit our hearts, minds, and resources to combating this terrible disease.” But we’re sure we first need to find out much, much more about where the problems really are, and then respond coherently and efficiently to what is found.

In hope for more progress in 2016!

World AIDS Day 2015 and those tricky '90-(90)-90' targets

Today is World AIDS Day.


Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, made an exciting announcement this week. He said:


The good news is that we now have what it takes to break this epidemic and keep it from rebounding—to prevent substantially more new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths and to eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination.”


This is a fantastic achievement – the result of twenty years' consistent effort, tireless activism and heroic personal contributions. It’s no time for complacency, though, because there’s still a mountain to climb if the Sustainable Development Goal of “ending” HIV by 2030 is to be achieved. But today is surely a moment for HIV activists to both celebrate and be optimistic.


Unfortunately we can never help but compare the successes arising out of such concerted AIDS activism with the corresponding limited progress that’s been made with TB in the same period – and today is no different. Somehow TB has become the permanent poorer relative in relation to its deadly twin (remembering that these two diseases can work with a dreadful synergy, and that the majority of those who die HIV positive in Africa are actually dying of TB).


It’s so easy to forget this. In fact it’s easy to miss it completely because of a crazy but logical rule in the international classification of deaths. For epidemiological expediency it dictates that any human death can only ever be ascribed to one disease, and that, because of the historically-perceived global super-threat of HIV, if you die HIV positive you end up down in the books as dying of HIV even though it’s invariably another opportunist disease that actually kills you. This means that two-thirds of Africans who die each year finally consumed by their tuberculosis infections go down in the international tallies as dying from HIV (and not TB) simply because they lived and died HIV positive.


It’s easy to gloss over the implications of this even if you’re fully aware of them. It can tilt the numbers, for instance, to the extent that officially claims are made that TB deaths have reduced nearly 50% to targeted levels for 2015 when they haven’t.  It worries us as a result that even the WHO may be guilty, not just of glossing over the scale of the perpetuating problem of TB deaths, but also of ‘spinning’ their language in their Reports. Here’s the statement, for instance, that the organisation made about TB deaths in relation to HIV/AIDS in its most recent TB Report:


“TB now ranks alongside HIV as a leading cause of death worldwide.”  


But it doesn’t actually “rank alongside” it at all! TB is now unashamedly back at the top of the unholy tree of lethal infectious diseases despite its being one of mankind’s oldest enemies, despite its being a disease that’s been curable in most cases for nearly seventy years, and despite the fact that it’s been almost eradicated in most developed countries. In fact the WHO's own numbers show that TB’s estimated annual death-toll now significantly EXCEEDS the death-toll associated with HIV/AIDS – so what’s been a triumph for HIV activists has seen a reversal of fortune for those advocating for tuberculosis. It's all there in the WHO’s own reported numbers: there were estimated to be 1.5 million deaths from TB in 2014 (and we’d suggest quite probably a lot more..) whilst there were 1.2 million deaths logged for HIV/AIDS. (HIV was killing more than 2 million a year in its heyday so whilst 1.2 million annual deaths is still a huge number and still a tragic waste of lives, this should be recognised as huge progress. Tuberculosis, on the other hand, has being pretty consistently killing the same amount of human beings throughout this same period year on year.)


This simple graphic illustrates what’s been shaping up for years. In this illustration the middle section shows those co-infected with both diseases who often only get reported in the HIV numbers.


So we suggest that the WHO’s news about TB in October’s Report would have been better announced as follows:


“TB, mankind’s oldest bacteriological enemy, is now once again humanity’s most lethal infectious killer”.


The new '90–90–90' targets


Last year UNAIDS adopted a new and  rather catchy ‘90-90-90’ slogan as a part of their plan for ending HIV. According to this plan, by 2020 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status; by 2020 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will be receiving sustained antiretroviral therapy; and by 2020 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have achieved viral suppression. (And what's more, by 2030 these same targets are intended to be ramped up to 95-95-95 driving HIV right into submission.)


Once again TB advocacy was looking outclassed and left behind, but right at the end of last year fresh efforts were made to match the undeniable ambition of these targets for HIV. In November in Brasilia the Ministers of Health from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa announced almost identical commitments regarding tuberculosis at their BRICS Health Ministers Meeting.

They approved a co-operative plan that would include a common approach to universal access to first line tuberculosis medicines for all people with TB (not just in BRICS countries, but also in low- and other middle-income countries as well).


Perhaps a little unimaginatively they similarly called it ‘90-(90)-90’ (just a couple of brackets encouraging us to spot a difference.)


By this plan by 2020 90% of TB patients will be being diagnosed and started on first line drug treatment, 90% of the most vulnerable groups will be being screened, and a success rate in those receiving treatment of 90% will be being achieved. Furthermore they reckoned that meeting these targets will help see TB ended by 2035.


These targets for TB were originally suggested by Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi (who’s not just Chair of the Stop TB Partnership  but also Minister of Health for South Africa) back in October 2014 at the Union Lung Conference in Barcelona. This year's same Union Conference is being this week in Capetown, with special store being placed in launching the Partnership’s Plan for TB for 2016-20 with the 90-(90)-90 targets at its very heart. In fact, by coincidence, this Plan and its targets have been officially endorsed today (on World AIDS Day) by its delegates.


The BRICS ministers also agreed to cooperate on scientific research and innovations on diagnostics and treatment, including in relation to drug-resistance. They identified sharing technologies, identifying manufacturing capacities and TB financing as key priorities. But it’s the drug-resistant component that must now be the make-or-break factor within their ‘nineties’ targets, but the truth (at least as far as we can see it) is that they don’t allow for drug-resistance at all.


Getting 90% of drug-susceptible TB cases diagnosed and on treatment  is a big ask for sure, but it’s still achievable with concerted efforts given that currently 68% are believed to already be being found and treated. But with MDR-TB this same case detection rate is just 25% at best (and we’d suggest that even this percentage is optimistic). Anyone who seriously believes that this percentage can be improved nearly fourfold in as many years knows nothing about the challenges of diagnosing MDR-TB.


Meanwhile a 90% treatment success rate for drug-susceptible TB is even more achievable given that it’s already reported that an 87% success rate is being achieved. But with MDR-TB the related success rate is just 50% - and with XDR-TB it’s a terrible 25%. There’s little or no chance that these targets can be achieved in the timescale allotted for DR-TB.


There are possible knock-on consequences of these ‘nineties’ targets for TB. They're worrying and shouldn’t be underestimated. Individual health ministries are being increasingly pressured to do more to meet the targets set for them. If national TB programs are then put under the cosh to meet these targets they’ll do the obvious and concentrate almost all of their resources on achieving them – because otherwise they’ll be judged accordingly and may well lose their donor funding. But if they do so they’ll almost certainly do it at the expense of any existing MDR-TB problem that they have (because treating MDR-TB is so much more expensive and more challenging). In other words, meeting the very targets that are being seriously mooted to help end TB may paradoxically cut the drug-resistant component loose for the second time in twenty years.


What makes this all the more perplexing is that it was the ministers of the BRICS countries who came up with these targets, because four out of five of them are well-recognised to have drug-resistant TB epidemics that are the worst in the world. South Africa’s epidemic is well recognised to be out of control (though at least its extent is well recognised); China’s is known to be proportionately dangerous and is also reported to be occurring at frightening rates in newly infected cases; Russia’s (along, it should be added, with all of the former Soviet oblasts) DR epidemic is well entrenched and chronic (Mario Raviglione, the WHO’s TB czar, has euphemistically suggested that “something is not going well there”); and India’s is almost too terrifying to consider having been officially ignored and underestimated for far too long. Of the BRICS countries only Brazil seems to have escaped the curse of MDR-TB.


The fact that these five countries not only generally fund their own TB programs but also generate 25% of global GDP and have significant research infrastructure and capacity at least gives us cause for hope, but even Dr Motsoaledi must accept that his own country’s budgets for fighting MDR-TB (which are certainly more generously allocated than most) aren’t containing the problem and are already insufficient.


Somehow HIV trumps TB every time. It trumps it in the advocacy stakes. It trumps it in the resources stakes. It even trumps it in the coherency stakes. There’s enormous catching up to be done and we’re probably going to need the help of the HIV community to do it.


In contrast, the only thing that TB manages to trump HIV in is in its inherent complexities. There's unquestionably a long hard road ahead before we can claim we’re defeating this disease, and it's one which we're sure needs to be navigated not with catchy soundbite targets but with immense determination and unprecedented creative intelligence.