Global tuberculosis deaths saw an uptick in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade, a World Health Organization (WHO) report released Thursday found, attributing the rise to the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO documented about 1.5 million tuberculosis deaths last year, including 214,000 among people who were positive for HIV, an increase from 1.4 million tuberculosis deaths in 2019, when 209,000 HIV-positive people died from the disease.
The 5.6 percent increase in fatalities last year represented the first increase since 2005, with WHO predicting tuberculosis cases and deaths will rise “much higher” in 2021 and 2022. Experts expect tuberculosis to have been the second-leading cause of death from a single infectious agent last year, behind COVID-19, after ranking 13th in 2019.
“Far fewer” people received tuberculosis diagnoses and treatments last year, with an 18 percent reduction in diagnoses and a 21 percent decrease in people seeking preventive treatment in 2020.
The international health organization projects that about 4.1 million people currently have tuberculosis without a diagnosis, more than the 2019 prediction that 2.9 million unknowingly suffer from it.
Spending worldwide on tuberculosis diagnosis, treatment and prevention dwindled in 2020 from $5.8 billion to $5.3 billion, which WHO noted is less than half the 2022 target for tuberculosis spending.
Tuberculosis is considered preventable and curable. While the COVID-19 pandemic redirected health resources away from other priorities in addition to the disease, WHO noted that the impact on tuberculosis “has been particularly severe.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement that the new report “confirms our fears” that the pandemic “could start to unravel years of progress against tuberculosis.”
“This is alarming news that must serve as a global wake-up call to the urgent need for investments and innovation to close the gaps in diagnosis, treatment and care for the millions of people affected by this ancient but preventable and treatable disease,” he said.
WHO also said that despite "some success," the world is “off track” to meet global tuberculosis goals that are “increasingly out of reach.”
By 2030, WHO aims to curtail tuberculosis deaths by 90 percent and cases by 80 percent compared to 2015 levels.
The international health organization requested that nations institute “urgent measures” to resume services addressing tuberculosis and to double investments in research, innovation and action against the disease.