Stakeholders gather in Seoul to point the way forward on stamping out TB in the Asian region through partnership

23 November - Seoul, Republic of Korea - Some 120 experts on tuberculosis (TB) and representatives from NGOs, communities and the private sector gathered in Seoul yesterday and today for the first ever Forum of National Partnerships to Stop TB in the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. The forum, organized by the Korean Stop TB Partnership and Stop TB Partnership Secretariat, had as its goals to share best practices, discuss common challenges and develop country-specific and regional plans of action to strengthen efforts to stop TB.

Eight countries (India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Viet Nam, Thailand, Japan and the Republic of Korea) were represented. All acknowledged the difficulties faced in addressing the TB epidemic, including the emerging threat of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) in the two regions, and underlined the crucial need for all actors to combine and harmonize their efforts to reach the aspirational goal of zero TB deaths.

At the opening ceremony Ms Son Sook-Mee, Chair of the Korea Stop TB Partnership, acknowledged the potential for stepping up domestic action on TB, given that the Republic of Korea has the highest incidence of TB among all 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The country could also play a leading role in the region, she said, by providing technical and financial assistance and becoming a role model for other countries. Speakers from the Republic of Korea highlighted advances in technology, such as monitoring by camera and video phone devices, which can make it easier to support treatment adherence among people affected by TB.

Community representatives stressed the need to focus on mobilizing communities and empowering them to take action. Unless patients and communities have a voice, they said, stigma and discrimination will never go away. Blessina Kumar, Vice Chair of the Stop TB Partnership’s Coordinating Board and community representative said there was also a need to change the current TB language. Using detrimental words such as ‘control’, ‘defaulter’, and ‘suspect’ incite discrimination against people affected by TB, she explained.

Dr Jorge Sampaio, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Stop TB - who, in addition to speaking at the opening, was visiting Seoul on a high-level mission - called for a new level of leadership in the region. "Countries that have reached good results in tuberculosis control should support those still lagging behind. The key concepts here are networking and sharing efforts on the basis of mutual solidarity," he said. Full support to national partners will be key to advancing this agenda, he said.

Some 600 000 people die of TB each year in the region. "The Republic of Korea, with its vibrant economy, can play a key leadership role in reducing this figure," Dr Sampaio said. "Our goal is to have the next generations talk about tuberculosis as a disease from the past."

Representatives from Stop TB Japan, whose delegation included a survivor of MDR-TB who shared his story, made a strong call for the creation of a patient network in Asia. Many delegates echoed the need for such a network, which could be set up relatively easily, given the excellent level of web and mobile communications in the region.

During discussions on the action plans countries prioritized the need to bring people affected by TB forward to have their voices heard. Proposed activities included forming groups of patient advocates, building capacity in community systems strengthening and establishing mechanisms for patients from different countries to share their experiences and build regional networks.

Some countries drew up plans to strengthen work with partners (within their own countries) and to address TB among migrants, prisoners and people living in urban slums. Involving and engaging the private sector was also identified as a key action, recognizing the many different ways the private sector can contribute to the fight against TB.