Trio of African health ministers takes Washington by storm on Stop TB Partnership high-level mission

31 March 2011 - Washington DC - This week the health ministers of Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland joined the Stop TB Partnership's Executive Secretary Lucica Ditiu and Chair and Vice Chair of the Stop TB Partnership Board, Rifat Atun and Blessina Kumar, on a mission to spur policy makers to ramp up their support for the fight against TB. Forming a sort of "A-Team" against TB - as a report by the German news agency DPA called them, likening them to the characters of the iconic television series and recently released Hollywood film - the three ministers took the city by storm, leaving in their wake a great many transformed hearts and minds.

"TB is already laughing at us, saying ‘I am just transforming!" Lesotho Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng said, referring to both the deadly evolution of drug-resistant strains and to the need to transform the fight.

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Swaziland Health Minister Benedict Xaba and Dr Ramatlapeng made the rounds with members of US Congress and their influential staffers, newspaper reporters and editors, bloggers and various high-level representatives of major Washington institutions. Shuttling from meeting to meeting -- splitting up at times to make the most of their two-day mission - they made their case, among others, with Representative Eliot Engel (member of the Foreign Affairs Committee); Lois Quam, executive director of the Global Health Initiative at the US State Department; Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and World Bank Vice President for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili.

Minister Motsoaledi - who has been working with unions in the mining industry, company owners, labour officials and others to get out the word about TB - on one occasion compared TB to a snake whose head is in South Africa and tail is moving to other African countries. South Africa draws workers from across the region, especially to work in mines. But many return home infected with TB and HIV, and then they may lose access to care.

For this reason the formidable trio are developing a regional initiative to engage companies, unions and ministries of labour, health, natural resources, mines, finance and immigration in the fight against TB within the regional group, the Southern African Development Community. They will work together to organize a major meeting to address these issues later this year.

Minister Xaba made a strong case by announcing that Swaziland had declared TB a national emergency last week. In a country with very limited resources, the government has shown its commitment by raising its budget for TB at a time when other budget lines are being cut of necessity. To get more care to more people, he added, employees of the health ministry, including himself, have taken a 10% salary cut.

Everywhere they spoke the ministers exhorted Washingtonians to recognize that TB care save lives - and produces results, since it is one of the world's most cost-efficient health interventions. Last week the Global Fund released figures strongly supporting this fact: of the 6.5 million lives saved through programmes it has financed since its founding, 4.1 million were saved through TB care - and that, with a budget of just 17% of total GF funds.