Global lockdown measures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic could lead to millions of people contracting tuberculosis (TB) over the coming years, according to a new study.
As many as 6.3 million people are expected to develop TB as cases go undiagnosed and untreated between now and 2025, a study published by Stop TB Partnership on Wednesday showed, with 1.4 million people predicted to die during this time.
It is expected to set back global efforts to fight TB by at least five years, and possibly up to eight years.
"This situation makes me sick, because (it) is totally avoidable," Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership, said via email. "We just need to keep in mind that TB, as well as other diseases, keep affecting and killing people every single day, not just Covid-19."
The research, which was commissioned in collaboration with Imperial College London, Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University and USAID, was based on a three-month lockdown and a protracted 10-month restoration period as daily life returns to normal.
It was modeled on data principally drawn from three high-incidence countries (India, Kenya and Ukraine) and extrapolated to a global level.
The World Health Organization has recognized TB as the world's "top infectious killer," given 10 million people fall ill with TB every year and 1.5 million people die annually from the disease.
It is caused by bacteria and most often affects the lungs, the United Nations health agency says, but both the TB infection and disease are curable using antibiotics.
Since effective medication exists to treat TB, the global response relies on testing and treating as many people as possible.
"TB is an airborne infectious disease, so every single person with TB not diagnosed and treated infects many others — so we have a snowball effect," Stop TB Partnership's Ditiu warned.
The Covid-19 outbreak has meant countries around the world have effectively had to shut down, with many governments imposing draconian restrictions on the daily lives of billions of people.
Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories in an effort to try to slow the spread of the pandemic.
The restrictions, which vary in their application worldwide but broadly include school closures, bans on public gatherings and social distancing, are thought to have made it much more challenging for health care workers to test vulnerable populations and for patients to access treatments.
To recover the gains made over the last years through increased efforts and investments in TB, the Stop TB Partnership said Wednesday that "it was important to have supplementary measures and resources in place to reduce the accumulated pool of undetected people with TB."
"Such measures may include ramped-up active case-finding, alongside intensive community engagement and contact tracing to maintain awareness of the importance of recognizing and responding to symptoms suggestive of TB, using digital technology and other tools," it said in a statement.
Founded in 2001, the Stop TB Partnership is an international body of more than 1,700 partners that aims to serve every person who is vulnerable to TB.
It operates through a secretariat hosted by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Geneva, Switzerland to accelerate progress on TB diagnosis and treatment.