TB is a potentially fatal disease which affects the lungs. It is spread through the air when infected individuals sneeze or cough. It is a vaccine-preventable illness against which millions of children have been protected thanks to the BCG vaccine but the disease has made a steady comeback in recent years.
The latest figures from the World Health Organisation estimate that 353,000 patients were diagnosed with TB in 2012. While this figure remains high, it represents an average annual 5% decline over the past decade in the 53-countries which comprise the WHO’s European Region.
The decrease was 6% in the EU alone, according to figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Despite the progress in reducing the overall number of new cases of TB, the growing number of multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB and extensively-drug resistant (XDR) TB cases is jeopardising efforts to eliminate the disease by 2050.
An Action Plan to counter TB was published in 2011, targeting drug-resistant forms of the disease. It sought to improve prevention, early diagnosis and improve access to treatment, and called for greater efforts to develop new TB vaccines.
ECDC Director Marc Sprenger said the lack of early diagnosis and treatment of patients with drug-resistant TB puts patients at risk and paves the way for the most dangerous forms of the disease to spread. “This is why it is essential to enable healthcare workers across Europe to fully support all MDR TB patients during the full course of treatment and make sure they finish it successfully,” he said.
Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, called for shorter and more effective treatment. “There is an urgent need for new anti-TB medicines with shorter and more effective treatment regimens and we must reach all patients, not only half of them and ‘half the way,” she said.
For vaccine researchers, a TB vaccine remains a priority given how widespread the disease is globally and the difficulty treating it.