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NEW YORK CITY -- For the first time ever, heads of governments, public health and business leaders, heads of United Nations (UN) agencies and activists came together at UN headquarters today to confront a threat to global health that could undermine investments in life-saving drug treatment for people living with HIV.
Tuberculosis (TB) is every year taking the lives of nearly a quarter of million people living with HIV. It is the number one cause of death among people living with HIV in Africa. Worldwide it is a leading cause of death in this population.
WHO, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently announced that some 3 million people are now receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, but TB, especially drug-resistant forms of the disease, threatens to hinder this progress. Because HIV weakens the immune system, people living with HIV are up to 50 times more likely to develop TB in their lifetimes than people who are HIV negative. Without proper treatment with anti-TB drugs, the majority of people living with HIV die within two to three months of becoming sick with TB.
The leaders spelled out specific measures, recommended by WHO and needed to prevent deaths from HIV/TB. People living with HIV must be screened regularly for TB. Those who are sick with TB need effective TB treatment, and those without TB should receive preventive therapy with the drug isoniazid. These treatments are not expensive. A six-month course of TB treatment costs $20, and a course of preventive drug therapy costs $2. Simple measures to prevent the spread of TB among HIV-infected people, especially in healthcare settings, also need to be put in place.
In 2006, WHO reported that only 1 percent of the total estimated number of people infected with HIV worldwide were screened for TB. But some countries are making gains on detecting HIV among TB patients and providing life-saving treatments for both diseases.
Kenya, Malawi and Rwanda, for example, more than doubled the proportion of TB patients tested for HIV infection and treated appropriately between 2004 and 2007, according to national government data. In Kenya, the percentage of TB patients tested for HIV rose from 19 percent to 70 percent, and in Malawi the increase was from 25 percent to 83 percent. In Rwanda, in 2004, TB services were not testing any patients for HIV; in 2007, they tested 89 percent.
Today's HIV/TB Global Leaders Forum was convened by the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Stop TB, Dr. Jorge Sampaio, and was endorsed by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The forum was opened by the Secretary-General and Srgjan Kerim, president of the UN General Assembly.
The leaders pointed to HIV/TB as a major constraint to economic development, since most TB deaths are among adults of working age. Because it most often strikes society's most disadvantaged people, they said, the dual epidemic is a barrier to social justice and human rights. They also warned that HIV/TB could evolve as a threat to global health security, particularly in the light of emergence of virtually untreatable TB strains.
Sampaio will report on the outcome of the forum to the UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS, which begins tomorrow. Today's forum was supported by UNAIDS, the World Bank, WHO, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Stop TB Partnership.
Source: World Health Organization