Pharmaceutical leaders call for greater investment in health systems

A child receives tuberculosis medication in South Sudan. According to research, 75 million people could lose their lives to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis over the next 35 years. Photo by: Brian Sokol / UNDP South Sudan / CC BY-NC-ND

Aid agencies must invest more in strengthening health systems and infrastructure to avoid many millions of people losing their lives to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis by 2050, a group of U.K. members of Parliament said on World Tuberculosis Day.

Their call to action is backed by senior figures in the pharmaceutical sector, who told Devex preventing a resurgent TB pandemic was not only dependent on drug development.

Research published this week by the U.K. All Party Parliamentary Group on Global TB claims 75 million people could lose their lives to MDR-TB over the next 35 years and cost the global economy $16.7 trillion.

World Health Organization figures suggest 1.5 million people died of tuberculosis in 2013. APPG TB projections, however, are modeled on a scenario where rates of resistance rise by 40 percent and infection rates double, because people with resistant infections carry them for longer and have a greater chance of spreading them.

Patrizia Carlevaro, managing director of pharmaceutical company Otsuka, which developed one of the only two new anti-TB treatments approved for more than 40 years prior to 2013, said preventing resistance to treatments is the first challenge in the fight against tuberculosis.

But she argued that without better health infrastructure, investment in research and development is wasted as treatments are administered inadequately. Treating MDR-TB patients is complex as it can take up to 24 months, and less than half of people successfully complete treatment.

“There may be an incentive from some governments to do more research, but if the infrastructure is not there, not much can be done,” Carlevaro said.

“There are two new compounds that have been registered in the world. Even if we had a new compound tomorrow, the infrastructure would still be the same. There should be more overseas development aid spent on the health care system overall, as TB would benefit dramatically if there was more investment in health care structures and training of professionals.”

Carlevaro added that local governments, donors and agencies need more support to ensure health systems are developed.

“The [Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria] and WHO are now investing a lot in the infrastructure, but probably not enough for avoiding the big figures in this report,” she warned.

Mario Ottiglio, director of public affairs, communications and global health policy at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations agreed that resilient health systems are needed to prevent TB’s spread.

“The Ebola outbreak was a wake-up call around the world as to the importance of having the health systems in place that can deliver primary care,” he said. “Our research shows that those countries that were the most effective in tackling [HIV and AIDS] were those whose governments were positively engaged over time, putting in place the necessary health systems and awareness programs.”

As well as calling for better health systems, the APPG TB’s report lists five more recommendations, including creating a research and development challenge fund for countries that do not currently support development R&D.

It also suggests TB should be recognized as a “pillar” of the antimicrobial resistance crisis, which sees rising levels of people developing resistance to antibiotics coming at the same time as the development of new treatments has slowed.

MP and Co-chairman of the APPG TB Virendra Sharma described the figures released yesterday as a “tipping point” in the fight against TB.

“If we focus our efforts and resources we could eliminate the disease within a generation, but if we don’t we will face catastrophic human and economic costs,” he said.

Tuberculosis is the world’s second deadliest infectious disease and the only major drug-resistant infection spread through the air.

What are your thoughts on measures to prevent a global tuberculosis pandemic? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Gabriella jozwiak profile

    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.