Gates pledges $600 million for Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis

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Saturday, February 4, 2006

Tuberculosis does not frequently make headlines, but it kills about two million people each year. In a new effort to fight the disease, the Stop Tuberculosis Partnership on January 27 requested US$31 billion for a Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis, which the Partnership claims would prevent an estimated 14 million TB deaths during the next ten years.

To kick-off the funding drive, Bill Gates pledged to donate US$600 million. "Every 15 seconds somebody dies of TB, avoidably, preventably," said UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who helped launch the Plan at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "I welcome the Gates Foundation's announcement today. For far too long, world leaders have ignored the global tuberculosis epidemic, even as it causes millions of needless deaths each year," said Brown.

"The Global Plan is fundamental for Africa, where tuberculosis was declared an emergency by 46 countries in 2005," said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Tuberculosis is a contagious disease caused by bacteria that spread through the air and usually attack the lungs. One-third of the world's population is now infected, and 5-10% of infected people suffer active TB disease sometime during their lives. Left untreated, each person with active TB will infect on average between ten and 15 people every year.

TB is active worldwide, though most deaths are in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Drugs in use for more than four decades can cure the disease. The World Bank ranked a common TB-treatment strategy, called DOTS, as one of the "most cost-effective of all health interventions".

A childhood vaccine against tuberculosis has been available for more than 75 years.

"This is a disease with a huge impact that is completely treatable and preventable," said Dr. Peter Small, a member of the Stop TB coordinating board. "It's not that we can't do something about it, it's that we've chosen not to."

In addition to limited funding, the fight against TB has also been hampered in recent years by two developments. Because HIV weakens the immune system, people who have the virus that causes AIDS are much more likely to become ill with tuberculosis than those who are HIV-negative. TB is the leading cause of death among people with HIV/AIDS.

The second problem lately has been the evolution of drug resistance among many strains of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Some strains, called multi-drug resistant, are immune to the effects of more than one drug.

Stop TB claims that full funding of the Plan will help achieve the Millennium Development Goal to have "halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of tuberculosis." The Plan aims to provide:

  1. Improve treatment access--prevent 14 million TB deaths and provide treatment to 50 million people.
  2. New drugs--develop and distribute the first new TB treatment regimen in nearly 40 years.
  3. New vaccine--develop a safe, affordable vaccine to improve upon the existing vaccine, which has been in use since the early 1900s.
  4. New diagnostics--develop efficient, effective, and affordable diagnostic tests for TB--the first in more than a century.

"We have a unique historic opportunity to stop tuberculosis," said Dr. Marcos Espinal, Executive Secretary of the Stop Tuberculosis Partnership. "The challenge now is for people to work together in putting the plan into action, in order to stop one of the oldest and most lethal diseases known to humanity. This plan tells the world exactly what we need to do in order to defeat this global killer."

There has already been significant progress against TB over the past several years. Since 2000, estimated spending on tuberculosis control in the 22 hardest-hit countries has increased from US$800 million to US$1.2 billion; as a result, the number of patients receiving TB treatment in these countries more than doubled.

According to Stop TB, implementing the new Plan will require US$56 billion over ten years--US$47 billion for expanding access to treatments already available, and US$9 billion for research and development of new diagnostic tools, drugs, and vaccines. The total number is US$31 billion more than the amount Stop TB estimates will be spent if current funding trends continue. The investment, the group insists, would have a profound effect on the number of tuberculosis cases averted and lives saved.