Territorial jealousy between national AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) programmes was claiming thousands of lives world-wide, activists and experts said at a global lung health conference in Cape Town on Friday.
While up to 80 percent of HIV sufferers in some parts of the world also had TB, few people who test positive for the deadly lung disease were automatically screened for the virus that causes AIDS, panelists told a press conference at the gathering.
"Up to half of reported AIDS deaths are caused by tuberculosis. Yet we know that in 2005 only seven percent of TB patients were tested for HIV world-wide and less than one in 200 people living with HIV were screened for tuberculosis," said Alasdair (CORRECT) Reid, HIV-TB advisor for the United Nations AIDS programme.
"Globally we are missing vital opportunities to offer better care and prevent unnecessary deaths among people living with HIV and among TB patients.
Testing all TB patients for HIV could lead to earlier detection and access to live-saving anti-retroviral treatment.
And screening all HIV-positive people for TB could prevent thousands of deaths through early diagnosis and treatment.
Yet there remained a lack of meaningful collaboration between TB and HIV programmes, a fact the panelists blamed on factors like geographical distance, a lack of mutual trust and territorial jealousy.
"In some of the countries we are working with, there is jealousy between the HIV and the TB programmes," said Paula Fujiwara of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.
"In the activities we are doing with TB patients in getting access to HIV care, when they (HIV programmes) found that we could actually do something they started getting a little scared as if we are taking over their territory."
Joint committees have been set up in many countries to try and solve the problem, "but we've had quite a bit of difficulty getting them to meet, to talk together", said Fujiwara -- who described the status quo as "scandalous".
Winstone Zulu, a Zambian HIV-TB activist, and sufferer of both, said policy makers needed to be made aware of the close link between the two deadly epidemics.
"For many of us who are HIV-positive, the thing that is most likely to kill us is tuberculosis, at least in Africa," he said.
"If I didn't take the TB drugs when I did in 1996, I would not be here today. I would have died and I would have gone as an AIDS statistic."
TB drugs cost only about 20 dollars per full course, yet almost a third of people in need of treatment could not access them, said Zulu.
"There is no way we can succeed in fighting AIDS if we don't fight TB."
The five-day conference, ending Monday, is being attended by some 3,000 health experts from 100 countries.