While world leaders focused on children’s health at the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York on Tuesday, further uptown, the UN Week Digital Media Lounge opened its doors. The Digital Media Lounge, a joint project of Mashable, the United Nations Foundation, and the 92nd Street Y, is offering up four days of expert panels and interviews related to the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.
Musician Craig David launches the Digital Media Lounge
Healthcare was very much on the radar at the Digital Media Lounge, as well. Craig David, British R & B star and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador against tuberculosis launched the lounge Tuesday morning by participating in a panel along with Lucy Chesire, a Kenyan TB/HIV patient and activist and Dr. Lee Reichman, a leading international academic authority on TB. They’re pictured above at the U.N. Week Digital Media Lounge.
Each year, over nine million people become ill with tuberculosis and nearly two million die according to the Stop TB Partnership. TB is the leading cause of death among people infected with HIV in Africa. Lucy Chesire talked about how she almost died when she contracted TB a decade ago. “I had to take twenty pills in the morning and twenty pills in the evening, and I can tell you that wasn’t easy,” she recalled of her eight month ordeal.
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Chesire was lucky. TB cases among people living with HIV hit 1.4 million in 2008 according to the World Health Organization, resulting in half a million deaths. The irony, as David, Chesire and Reichman emphasized over and over again, is that TB is preventable and curable.
“Five thousand people are dying every day from tuberculosis around the world, and five thousand people shouldn’t have to be dying every day from a curable disease,” David exclaimed. “It is a preventable disease and a curable disease, and that’s one of the things I’m most passionate about,” said David, who was named Goodwill Ambassador a year ago. And as he told me later, “anyone can catch this, and that’s why I’m trying to make people aware that it’s not just in South Africa or a third world country. It’s happening in London. It’s here in New York, but people tend not to talk about it.”
Paradoxically, although TB has long been one of the biggest killers worldwide — second only to HIV/AIDS — it’s also been one of the most neglected — and remains woefully underfunded. The question is why.
TB isn’t sexy
“I look at TB as the example of a non-sexy disease,” Dr. Reichman said. “Why non-sexy? Because nobody cares about it. It has an image problem. We don’t know that people like Lucy are living with TB. People think it’s difficult to treat. It’s not difficult to treat. This is a disease that needs attention and needs resources to take care of it,” Dr. Reichman continued.
So how to achieve that goal? For one thing, that’s where Millennium Development Goal #6 comes into play. As written ten years ago, it aims to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and has ambitious benchmarks for TB:
- By 2005: to have detected 70% of new patients arising each year, and to have successfully treated 85% of them.
- By 2015: to have halted and begun to reverse incidence, and to reduce TB prevalence and death rates by 50% relative to 1990 (the baseline year for all of the MDGs).
By all accounts, real progress has been made. The World Health Organization reports the prevalence of tuberculosis is falling in most regions of the world, although the rate of decline is slow. “Kenya is one of the countries that has been able to reach the target of detecting 70% of new cases,” Chesire said, pointing to MDG targets. She is hopeful the world will reach the MDG #6 by 2015.
The Stop TB Partnership says the MDG target for halting TB incidence is on track. But the goal most certainly won’t be reached if the disease can’t be controlled. So why is it that in 2008 only five percent of the world’s 33 million people living with HIV were screened for TB?
As the saying goes, money makes the world go around. Best efforts can only go so far. Public-private partnerships such as the enormously respected and successful Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are key to the cure — and to achieving the MDG goal. The Fund has saved close to five million lives since its creation in 2002. With approved funding of $19.3 billion for more than 572 programs in 144 countries, it has become the main funding tool for such programs.
The Fund provides two thirds of all international financing for tuberculosis. However, it will need between $17 and $20 billion from donor governments over the next three years to scale up treatment programs. In the meantime, Oxfam says the Fund is struggling to raise $13 billion — the minimum to sustain people already on treatment.
On the opening day of the Millennium Development Goals Summit Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed for more funding for the Global Fund. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced a pledge of $1.4 billion, and by the end of the Summit Norway, Japan and Canada also made commitments. But with a global shortfall of $3 billion a year to fight TB alone, others — both public and private — will have to step up to the plate.
Money’s an issue but so is drug resistant TB
Another stumbling block is the pervasiveness of drug resistant TB. “The most pressing issue that people don’t really understand is that if you don’t treat TB properly, TB doesn’t go away,” Dr. Reichman explained. “If you don’t have good TB care then you get drug resistant TB. And if the doctor doesn’t treat it properly then you get drug resistant TB. And if a patient doesn’t take his medicine you get drug resistant TB. So the question is how to get better results, and it’s easier said than done.” Dr. Reichman told me.
Also easier said than done — creating public awareness and advocacy. That’s where Craig David comes in. David’s mission as Goodwill Ambassador is to help raise TB’s profile — and lift the stigma that surrounds the disease. As he pointed out, even a disease has to reach celebrity status before anyone will take action. David’s fellow panelists were quick to echo his thoughts.
“Things turned around when the TB community learned from the AIDS community how to do advocacy,” claimed Dr. Reichman. “As Craig said, if you’re a name disease rather than just another disease, the world will pay attention to you.”
That may be happening now. One can only hope efforts really ramp up in the wake of the Millennium Development Goals Summit. The Stop TB Partnership is hopeful that TB mortality, which fell 39% among HIV negative people between 1990 and 2009, could be halved by 2015. And Dr. Reichman draws hope from Lucy Chesire’s example. “What Lucy said about Kenya starting to meet targets, and some of these countries starting to meet targets – and these are places that are really chaotic – and if they’re starting to make progress then it’s really exciting.”
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Here are some startling statistics on TB from the World Health Organization:
- Someone in the world is newly infected with TB bacilli every second.
- Overall, one-third of the world’s population is currently infected with the TB bacillus.
- 5-10% of people who are infected with TB bacilli (but who are not infected with HIV) become sick or infectious at some time during their lives.
- Every person with active TB infects 10-15 people.
Couresty of Kaitlin Thurman Barry/UN Foundation