Talking Point: Drug-resistant TB found in our neighbourhood

To most Tasmanians, tuberculosis would seem a disease belonging to a distant place or time. The fact today is World TB Day is probably not marked in our diaries. After all, what does it matter to us?

As it turns out, the answer to that may surprise you.

TB is a bacterial infection that attacks the body’s organs, most commonly the lungs. It can lie dormant for years, thrives on a weakened immune system, and if not treated it can be fatal.

Tasmania reports only about 10 cases of active TB a year, but take a walk through the St John’s Park precinct near Ogilvie High School and you can still see the sanatorium chalets, recently restored, used to isolate 3500 TB patients in the early 1900s. This was a time when one in 12 Tasmanians died from TB.

Those days are behind us, thanks to antibiotics, but it’s a different story globally.

Worldwide, TB accounts for 1.5 million deaths a year. That’s the population of Tasmania three times over. As of last year, TB has overtaken HIV and AIDS to become the infectious disease responsible for the most deaths globally, having firmly secured the title for the most deaths across all of human history.

TB is one of the oldest known diseases. Archaeologists have found evidence of it in Egyptian mummies, and it has been with us ever since. Human history has a hitchhiker and we have become used to it, even complacent.

We can no longer afford to be complacent because the disease is becoming more cunning. It has exploited the under-resourced health systems of less well-off countries, developing into drug-resistant strains that make treatment of patients harder. More than half of new TB infections occur on our doorstep in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. We forget sometimes that a threat to our neighbours’ health is a threat to ours. If we want a healthy, prosperous region we must tackle this problem.

World leaders and medical experts are determined to put an end to preventable TB deaths within a generation. Last year, Australia was among 193 countries to sign on to a new set of Global Goals for Sustainable Development, including a target to end the TB epidemic, along with those of HIV and malaria, by 2030.

As Senators we’ve joined other parliamentarians to form national and regional TB Caucuses to raise the profile of TB and promote policies to eradicate it worldwide. One of the most effective ways Australia can contribute is to continue to invest in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This fund is responsible for 75 per cent of global financing of the fight against TB, and to date has detected and treated an impressive 15 million cases.

The Australian Government is proud to be a contributor of Australian aid to the global fund because of its effectiveness, transparency and the benefit it offers all Australians in reversing the spread of these diseases. Every three years, Australia joins other contributors in replenishing the global fund. Our next chance to do so will be later this year, and it cannot come soon enough. This isn’t just about being generous — though we should certainly be proud of that — it’s also about being smart. For the same cost as a block of chocolate per Australian per year, we can maintain or even increase our investment toward the $US13 billion fundraising goal.

The TB bacteria may have been with us for thousands of years, but it doesn’t have to stay with us. It is time to eradicate the epidemic. This World TB Day we join to endorse the work of the global fund. We look forward to supporting its lifesaving work as an expression of our common humanity, and ensure we never again face the scourge of epidemic TB in our island state, or anywhere.

David Bushby (Liberal), Nick McKim (Greens) and Lisa Singh (Labor) are all Tasmanian Senators. This article was written with Lindsey Little, group leader for RESULTS Hobart, which is campaigning for an end to the TB epidemic.

Article first published in The Mercury

This campaign is backed by Australia's aid & development groups

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