Just before the Christmas break, Pauline Latham MP (Mid Derbyshire, Conservative) secured a Westminster Hall Debate on HIV in developing countries. During a busy and well-attended debate, Ms Latham pointed out that ‘the end of the global AIDS epidemic is within our reach’ and echoed the slogan used by the Stop AIDS Campaign for World AIDS Day: ‘why stop now?’
Why stop now indeed, especially when we have the tools, the science and the knowledge to turn the tide on this epidemic. Pamela Nash MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on HIV/AIDS, reiterated this point and stated “We just need to sustain the political will”.
Undoubtedly political will is vital, but there is another important element to sustain, and dare we say scale up, in response to HIV/AIDS – Tuberculosis (TB) co-infection.
TB is the leading cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries, accounting for one in four deaths, with 1.1 million people acquiring TB in 2011. 79% of patients live in sub-Saharan Africa, yet TB does not get the attention or focus warranted by the suffering and death it causes. Why is this the case?
As Nick Herbert MP, the Conservative member for Arundel and the South Downs and a founding member of the APPG on Global Tuberculosis explained whilst speaking in the debate:
“It is striking that the diagnostic ability and treatment for HIV are much further ahead than they are for TB, yet TB is a more easily and cheaply treatable disease. Why is that? It is straightforwardly because HIV is a disease that affected the west, and TB was a disease that the west believed had gone. Its attention was therefore not on it. The resources and money that were invested in necessarily trying to deal with the terrible and growing problem of HIV were not directed in the same way at TB. Therefore, the diagnosis of TB is not as quick as it should be, and the treatments go on for an extended period, with old-fashioned drugs that must be taken on a continuous basis; if they are not taken in that way, the problem of drug-resistant TB arises—and that is a killer and particularly difficult to deal with.”
Mr Herbert also highlighted that of the estimated 9 million people who get ill with TB every year, 3 million go without proper diagnosis or treatment. Put simply, we fail to reach far too many people—often in the poorest, most vulnerable communities—with quality TB care.
We need to accelerate our efforts to tackle TB, and it is clear that we need to think outside the box. One way of doing this is through TB REACH, a WHO initiative that gives small grants of up to 1 million dollars to find and treat those who don’t have any access to TB diagnosis or treatment, Mr Herbert added.
He also stated that a longer term solution to tackling TB would be the creation of a new vaccine that could tackle both normal and drug-resistant strains of the disease. This would have implications not only for developing countries, but also for us here in the UK, where rates of TB infection continue to rise.
The importance and contribution of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to tackling both HIV and TB was widely recognised by members, as were the wider developmental benefits accrued from continued investment in fighting the three diseases.
Responding to the points raised, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development Lynne Featherstone MP acknowledged the two points raised by Mr Herbert in relation to the TB REACH programme and on vaccination, both of which she said she would consider further. The Minister also highlighted that DFID’s support for TB research includes £205 million to the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, and £14 million to the Tropical Disease Research Programme.
Ms Featherstone concluded the session by stating: “It is heartening to see so many Members who genuinely hold HIV as a priority and will pursue the wonderful goal of zero infections”.