Aug 27, 2020 07:38 PM

Expert Warns of Surge in Patients Seeking Delayed Treatment for Tuberculosis

A masked pedestrian walks in New York on July 1.
A masked pedestrian walks in New York on July 1.

While the world is still wrestling with the Covid-19 pandemic, a Chinese public health expert has warned of a spike in cases of the world’s most deadly infectious disease, tuberculosis (TB), as patients start seeking medical help again.

Huang Fei, a researcher with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday at a seminar hosted by a Peking University research center that the number of registrations of TB patients in China may suddenly increase in the short term.

Many TB patients have been avoiding hospitals as medical resources were diverted for Covid-19 treatments or due to fears about contracting the coronavirus.

According to Huang, the number of visits to TB clinics in the first three months of 2020 plunged by 260,000 from a peak of 800,000 in the previous quarter.

He said there could be several reasons for the decline, including lockdowns and travel restrictions, TB medical resources being redeployed to treat Covid-19, and fewer patients seeing doctors for fear of catching the new disease.

To battle the coronavirus, hospitals designated for TB cases, such as Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, were being used instead to treat Covid-19 patients, and the priority for health care workers was to fight and prevent the new infectious disease, Huang said.

He also said concerns over TB family clusters are rising, exceeding its spread in public places amid the coronavirus-led quarantine.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that in 2018 about 1.5 million people died and 10 million fell ill with TB – a disease caused by bacteria that most commonly affects the lungs. China has the world’s second highest number of TB cases and about 37,000 died in 2018.

The world’s most deadly infectious disease has not taken a break amid the coronavirus pandemic despite social distancing measures such as masking. Experts worry the coronavirus-led disruption of detection and treatment of other infectious diseases, including TB, could make the situation even worse this year.

Citing a recent study, Madhukar Pai, director of the McGill International TB Centre at McGill University in Canada said there will be 6.3 million new cases of TB and 1.4 million more deaths globally from 2020 to 2025, setting back the battle against the disease by five to eight years.

He also estimated there could be an additional 23,000 deaths from TB in China over the next five years under the worst-case scenario.

Pai said Covid-19 had overwhelmed public health systems in many countries, including China, leaving millions of TB sufferers with little to no access to crucial drugs, doctors and follow-up treatments.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on TB patients could also lead to drugs being out of stock in many countries over the coming months, with Pai warning the prolonged lockdown in India — the world’s major producer of TB treatment drugs — had disrupted the global supply chain.

He said production in India had yet to resume because of the lockdown and travel restrictions make it harder to transport pharmaceutical ingredients and raw materials from China to India.

Pai was also concerned about funding shortages for the research and treatment of TB as the Covid-19 pandemic had left many countries in economic difficulty. At the same time, governments, such as the United States, have withdrawn or cut funding to the WHO.

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