The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the number of people seeking and receiving healthcare for tuberculosis (TB), according to a new report published on Tuesday. Globally, 70 per cent of healthcare workers have reported a decrease in the number of people coming to health facilities for TB testing, the report said.
In India, TB patients reported significant challenges in accessing TB services during the pandemic and associated lockdowns, according to the report. Difficulty finding transport, fear of contracting Covid-19 during a healthcare visit and increased stigma due to TB and Covid-19 having similar symptoms, were among key barriers faced by TB patients, said the report, ‘The impact of Covid-19 on the TB pandemic – a community perspective’, which presented key findings in India, US and Kenya.
The report proposed several actions and commitments for a joint call to action to be taken up by the WHO, STOP TB Partnership, Global TB Caucus and Global Fund.
The report was prepared after 10 global networks came together in response to early warnings that Covid-19 was having a devastating impact on people affected by TB and TB programmes around the world. The networks launched a civil society-led survey to identify critical gaps and needs in TB services resulting from the pandemic and to highlight the voices of TB-affected communities and civil society.
Professor Madhukar Pai, director, McGill International TB Centre, said the survey, in which more than 1,000 people from 89 countries participated, was developed and piloted by a core working group of TB advocates and researchers. While most TB patients were given additional medicines to continue treatment at home, the researchers expressed a clear and urgent need for immediate non-medical support, including nutritional, economic and psychosocial support.
The findings of the survey offer a grassroots perspective on how Covid-19 is impacting five key stakeholder groups – people with TB, frontline healthcare workers, programme and policy officers, TB researchers and TB advocates.
Pai, whose centre was among the collaborating groups on the survey and report, said, “This report shows that the Covid-19 pandemic is absolutely devastating for our quest to end TB. We need to work extra hard to mitigate the damage and stay focused on TB for the long haul.”
TB is the world’s leading infectious disease with 1.5 million fatalities each year. Despite global and national efforts to end TB and the availability of cost-effective medicines to treat and cure it, too many people continue to suffer from this disease. In the survey, responses were collected from 237 people with TB in 16 countries. Of these, 58 responses were from India.
People with TB from Kenya (n= 159) and India (n= 58) reported significant challenges in accessing TB services during the pandemic and associated lockdowns. Difficulty finding transport to access TB care, changes in TB services and fear of contracting Covid-19 during a healthcare visit were cited as key barriers.
People with TB also reported experiencing increased stigma due to the similar symptoms of both respiratory diseases.
In India, 36 per cent of people with TB reported that the health facilities they normally visited were closed while in Kenya, 50 per cent of those with TB reported having trouble finding transport to care facilities.
Responses from policy and programme officers (n = 115) revealed that TB services and programme resources had declined significantly due to the pandemic. TB notifications have decreased drastically and personnel are being redeployed to respond to Covid-19.
According to the survey findings, TB frontline healthcare workers (n=150) reported significant reductions in TB care due to the pandemic. The main reasons for interruptions were due to the redeployment of essential resources and personnel to respond to the Covid-19 health crisis and generally weak health systems struggling to cope with an influx in demand.
Blessina Kumar from the Global Coalition of TB Activists said there is an urgent need for a recovery plan to get TB responses back on track and meet sustainable development goal commitments to end TB by 2030. “…We listen to the voices of people suffering, collected here by communities around the world. Our communities need support to be engaged and empowered in TB and Covid-19 response,” Kumar said. – The Indian Express