As the world prepares to celebrate World Children’s Day on 20 November, the Stop TB Partnership today noted with grave concern the setbacks suffered in the fight against childhood tuberculosis (TB) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the WHO 2020 Global TB Report, over one million children fall ill with TB every year, and TB deaths have increased for the first time in over a decade.
“Every single day, more than 650 children die from tuberculosis, a preventable and treatable disease. That is an unacceptable tragedy,” said Dr. Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership. “We cannot continue to stand on the sidelines while children fall ill and die, especially when we know how to prevent them from falling ill in the first place and how to treat them when they do so.”
At the United Nations High-Level Meeting (UN HLM) on TB in 2018, world leaders made several commitments to prevent and treat childhood TB. This included placing 4 million children under five years of age on TB preventive treatment as well as diagnosing and treating 3.2 million children with TB and 115,000 children with drug-resistant TB by 2022. Yet, according to this year’s Global TB Report, only 41% of children with TB have been treated between 2018 and 2020. That figure drops to 11% for children with drug-resistant TB. When it comes to TB prevention, only 29% of the UNHLM target has been met, with 1.2 million household contacts under the age of five benefiting from TB preventive treatment.
In 2020, only 59% of people developing TB were diagnosed and treated. For children this figure was worse at 37%, showing that children face more barriers to accessing TB care compared to adults.
“Children and young adolescents with TB have been disproportionately affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – with wider gaps reported by WHO in access to life-saving TB prevention and care,” said Dr. Tereza Kasaeva, Director of WHO’s Global TB Programme. “We need to move forward urgently to ensure access to essential TB services to save young lives and to save our future.”
“Children are the world of tomorrow, and we are failing them on so many fronts – health, poverty, climate,” added Dr. Ditiu. “Not many people realize that a rise in the number of children with TB in a city or country means ongoing and high transmission – as children are infected by the adults around them. It would be so easy to end TB in children, yet we note with dismay the world’s failure to commit sufficient resources to the fight against TB – with less than half of the global target of US$ 13 billion in annual funding by 2022 available. TB remains the Cinderella of infectious diseases, heavily impacted by the absence of collective commitments to save young lives. We will not accept this situation anymore.”
“Given COVID-19 setbacks, at the current pace of progress, it will take many years before we can save children from illness and death due to TB,” said Dr. Farhana Amanullah, Chair, Child and Adolescent TB (CA TB) Working Group and Member of the Stop TB Partnership Board. “Mortality due to TB is the highest among children, yet funding for this area remains low. We need to speed up, and increase funding for, research and development efforts to develop a new vaccine and new diagnosis tools. COVID-19 has shown us how quickly countries can mobilize money for research; we now need strong commitments and energy to save children’s lives from the second biggest infectious disease killer, TB.”
To help raise awareness around childhood TB around the world and help curb the spread of the disease, the Stop TB Partnership has teamed up with the global icon Hello Kitty. As one of the most active TB Champions, Hello Kitty tirelessly raises awareness about TB through social media, including live chats with experts, and affected children and their families. In a video interview, Dr. Ditiu also explained to Hello Kitty the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of TB in children. On this year’s World Children’s Day, the Stop TB Partnership and Hello Kitty also propose an interactive online quiz to help everyone learn about childhood TB.
Stop TB Partnership’s Global Drug Facility has also, since 2019, been working on an initiative to ensure that children with drug-resistant TB have access to child-friendly medicines, which dissolve in water, taste better and are easier for a child to swallow. These new drugs are now available in more than 50 countries.