A united front in the battle against TB shows Australian politics at its best

Nurse puts up a poster about tuberculosis in a village. Photo by: Roger Wheatley / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — The United Nations General Assembly High-level Meeting on Tuberculosis will take place in New York in September as part of leader’s week, which is considered a once in a lifetime opportunity to cement a global strategy to combat and eliminate TB.

Getting the right people at the table to deliver national contributions is critical. Yet, in Australia, a bipartisan group of politicians supported by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten is ignoring party lines to call for strong action.

At the June 20 meeting of the Australian TB caucus, Labor Senator Lisa Singh was appointed co-chair of the caucus, taking over from outgoing co-chair Matt Thistlethwaite. Joining Liberal member of parliament Warren Entsch in leading the group, Singh is now assigned the task of educating colleagues on the challenges of TB and the importance of urgent investment — with the aim to eventually end the global TB epidemic.

Speaking with Devex, Singh discussed what the caucus is calling for and the strategies to increase Australia’s investment in this space.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Australia’s TB caucus doing to encourage representation and action at the U.N. High-level Meeting?

On June 21, both myself and my co-chair Warren Entsch wrote a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asking him for serious leadership on the issue of TB. Particularly, we asked him to attend the first ever U.N. High-level Meeting on TB that will take place at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

With that, our letter had a number of asks — our asks were very reasonable because they relate to Australia’s commitment as a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals.

We ask the prime minister, together with other nations, that Australia commit to doubling the current global investment in TB — to reach an investment global target of $13 billion annually in the next five years. We also ask him to increase our investment in TB research, particularly drugs and vaccine development. The types of treatment options for people suffering from TB are fairly archaic, there needs to be more work done in treatment options.

Third, we ask to confirm Australia’s leadership role in leading and funding regional collaborations toward a roadmap for TB elimination. This roadmap is really important in eliminating TB in the Pacific region.

Although we do acknowledge that Australia has contributed to ending the global TB epidemic through its commitment to the Global Fund and the research that has gone into TB treatment options.

What was your path to joining the TB caucus?

I didn’t realize that TB was among one of the top ten causes of death worldwide. I really thought TB was a thing of the past until a couple of years ago at a briefing in parliament. So many people in neighboring countries were living with TB — and some of that is drug-resistant TB. I wanted to help, play my role and do something about this in parliament, and to support the work of The Global Fund.

I also have a long interest in supporting people with HIV — I wear another hat as the deputy chair of the parliamentary liaison group for HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne viruses. So I think this compliments both roles. With HIV, I saw my role through a human rights lens, about breaking down stigma and discrimination still associated with this disease.

Is there any indication yet of what Australia’s contribution may be to the U.N. High-level Meeting?

It’s still early days as far as the letter is concerned but I would be highly disappointed if there wasn’t a high-level minister attending this meeting. Whether it’s the prime minister, foreign minister or health minister, Australia needs to have a seat at the table.

We need to be there, pushing the case for the needs and support of the Pacific region to ensure we are meeting our SDG requirements.

Members of the caucus are planning to read statements in parliament to encourage Australia’s support of the U.N. High-level Meeting. When will we expect to hear these?

We don’t come back to parliament until August and it will be in that sitting period that we will make some statements in both houses of parliament. Warren and I will coordinate with our colleagues on that front. I understand that the U.N. General Assembly meets at the end of September and I understand the High-level Meeting on TB will happen on the second day of that leader’s week.

We do have time before we hear about Australia’s decision. The only thing that could stand in the way is a federal election being called.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Australia to show leadership and deal with this disease. And that is why our letter to the prime minister has been cc’d to leaders, foreign ministers, and health ministers of both the government and opposition — this is something we, as a country, need to prioritize.

The reality is that without immediate and concrete action, 28 million people will die from TB by 2020. Every dollar spent in TB returns a benefit throughout society. There are different ways of looking at this — but to do nothing and not be a part of this one in a lifetime opportunity is futile.

The caucus itself has strong bipartisan support, but more parliamentarians need to be brought to the table. What approach are you taking to continue engaging colleagues and encouraging them to join or support the TB caucus?

I hope to build on the work of my Labor colleague, Matt Thistlethwaite, in emphasizing the Australian parliament’s shared sense of commitment to leadership on TB. But I’ll also be encouraging more Australian members of parliament to join our caucus, to increase its size and continue to educate new members of parliament about our role and what we do.

When I found out about TB I really didn’t understand the extent of the problem in our region. In a way, the lack of awareness around TB in Australia may be because our rates are low.

We need to be looking beyond our country to support our region because the rates of TB are very high here — some 60 percent of the world’s TB cases occur in the Indo-Pacific region where nearly 5 million people fall ill each year — and a lot of them are children.

I was amazed to learn that it was only a couple of years ago that a new treatment was developed for children with TB — until 2016 children used to take adult pieces by breaking them up into a smaller size and they were very bitter and often the wrong doses — and children died.

Now, there is a specific treatment for children with a flavored medication going to 93 countries. That shows that with government investment by member states, we can actually start to eliminate this disease and provide some humanity to the way people living with TB are treated — particularly children.

We are still a relatively new TB caucus, we still have a lot of educating to do among parliamentarians.

Last year, I was invited by the parliament in India to be a part of the inaugural launch of the Indian TB caucus which was an amazing experience. I was pleased to see the resolve of so many Indian members of parliament, who really want to do more on TB at the political level and take that right up to the prime minister. The Indian government has responded strongly.

As a member of the Australian TB caucus, I am part of an Asia-Pacific regional TB caucus — we need to do this together as parliamentarians across the globe.

When I first joined the TB caucus I signed the Barcelona Declaration, which was a commitment to the principles of ending TB, but also supporting research and development and everything that is needed to ensure this disease is one day in the past. The Barcelona Declaration has been signed by hundreds of members of parliament now.

In our own Australian TB caucus we have 28 members of parliament on top of the letter Warren and I signed to the prime minister, and a very similar letter has been sent to the prime minister by every other member of Australia’s TB caucus.

It was quite an effort to get all those signatures as well — so that is quite a powerful voice that is going to the prime minister from all sides of parliament. And this is where we take the politics out of the issue and actually see it through a human rights and humanitarian lens.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.