The World Health Organisation (WHO) has claimed that the global tuberculosis (TB) epidemic has levelled off for the first time since it declared TB a public health emergency in 1993.
The Global Tuberculosis Control Report released today, two days before the world TB day, says that the percentage of the world's population struck by TB peaked in 2004 but has held steady in 2005.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the development as a culmination of the sustained efforts by the WHO and said that almost 60 per cent of TB cases worldwide were now detected. A vast majority of them were also cured, he said, thanks to the active co-operation of governments and other partners in the project to stop TB.
But for all his brave words the Millennium Development Goal of achieving a decrease in the number of tuberculosis cases per year by 2015 will still remain a distant dream, it looks like.
Such are the odds facing the authorities everywhere. Ban Ki-moon himself concedes the disease still killed 4400 people every day. Also in absolute numbers the number of TB cases continues to rise, even if slowly. And that is because the world population is expanding, says the report.
But WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan has pointed to the problem of uneven access to diagnosis and treatment within countries. "All people, no matter who they are or where they live, should have access to TB diagnosis and treatment as part of a package of general health services," he stresses.
In most countries with a high burden of TB, efforts to fight TB are impeded by inadequate laboratory facilities and critical shortages of health staff.
But easily the biggest problem is posed by the HIV epidemic. TB is a major cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS. HIV is the main reason for failure to meet TB control targets in high HIV settings, the report notes.
Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV/AIDS is dramatically fuelling the TB epidemic, the WHO says. It sees collaboration between TB and HIV programmes as the key to reducing the burden of TB among people living with HIV/AIDS and HIV among TB patients. Again it sounds a pious hope.
For instance, the Report finds that HIV testing for TB patients is increasing rapidly in Africa, but few people living with HIV are being screened for TB. ''In the last year, we have seen unprecedented collaboration between the TB and HIV communities, but much more is needed if we are to achieve our goal of universal access to quality TB and HIV prevention, diagnostic, treatment and care services'', says Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS.
The spread of the etensively drug resistant XDR-TB and the multi-drug resistant MDR-TB are among the other problems encountered by the international health administrators.
Dr Mario Raviglione, Director of the WHO Stop TB Department, claimed in a message that they had a clear plan for checking XDR-TB and MDR-TB. But paucity of funds was slowing down the process, threatening to reverse the gains made, he said and called for greater research to identify new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.