Living with Tuberculosis in the time of COVID-19

World TB Day 2021

Chimwemwe (not pictured), a 26 year-old living in the Machinga region, Khowa Village,  Malawi was diagnosed with tuberculosis in December 2019 after noticing a persistent cough which would not go away even after treating it with medication. 

Chimwemwe was then referred to his local clinic to have his sputum checked, when the results arrived, doctors told him that he had tuberculosis.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Malawi in April last year, Chimwemwe said he had been religiously taking his medication for three months. However, due to fears of being stigmatized because of the similar symptoms of COVID-19, he stopped going to the clinic to receive his TB treatment.

The impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated the already alarming numbers of some TB patients defaulting treatment.
According to a preliminary data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), Chimwemwe is among the 1.4 million fewer people who received care for tuberculosis in 2020 than in 2019. 

This World TB Day, the occasion seeks to convey the message that the world is running out of time to act on the commitments to end TB – which is critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that has put End TB progress at risk, and to ensure equitable access to prevention and care.

Despite progress made globally in tackling TB, in the Southern Africa it remains a major public health concern. The region has the highest per capita burden on TB; with countries such as Lesotho and Mozambique bearing the brunt of the diseases.

In 2016, 2.5 million Africans fell ill with TB and 417 000 succumbing to it. However, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, WHO released new statistics fearing that globally, more than half a million people may have died from TB in 2020, “simply because they were unable to obtain a diagnosis,” the report stated. 

This lack of diagnosis could also be linked to some of the findings from a national TB prevalence survey that was done in South Africa in 2019 which suggested that testing rates for TB have dropped by up to 50% in the year since SA’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Additionally, far fewer people have accessed treatment for TB since March 2020 – this could suggest that current rates of TB are likely to be even higher than those identified during the pre-COVID-19 era.

Regular TB checks are therefore of most importance, as it believed that many people are undiagnosed. A world free of TB is possible. Let us not lose sight of other pandemics to which people are succumbing daily.

AUDA-NEPAD SANBio has funded a collaboration project between the University Of Malawi College Of Medicine, the Biomedical Research Training Institute in Zimbabwe, and Antrum Biotech that have developed a new rapid test which is able to diagnose tuberculosis meningitis within two hours – surpassing the smear microscopy and the WHO recommended GeneXpert diagnostic in sensitivity.