March 2020

{Photo credit: MSH}Photo credit: MSH

by Barbara K. Timmons, PhD

Tuberculosis (TB) is the pandemic that won’t go away. This ancient disease, the leading infectious cause of death in the world, kills more than a million people every year. One-third of the world’s population lives with latent TB infection. Despite being a preventable and curable disease, TB has been difficult to eradicate in part because of the stigma around the infection, preventing people from getting tested and continuing treatment. 

Ethiopia is among the 30 countries with the highest burden of TB in the world. One TB patient in Eastern Ethiopia, a woman from the small city of Dire Dawa, told researchers from Management Sciences for Health (MSH), “My husband’s family stigmatized me a lot. Since they knew that I am a TB patient, they didn’t sleep in our house. They sleep outdoors. They are not also willing to eat with me. . . . Before I was infected with TB, our social life with other people was great. The social life of Dire Dawa community is well known. But after they knew that I am a TB patient, only one of my neighbors sometimes comes to visit me.”

{Photo credit: Warren Zelman}Photo credit: Warren Zelman

COVID-19’s lethal invasion in late 2019 has turned the world inside out. Yet, another disease, tuberculosis, has been plaguing humans since the Upper Paleolithic era, some 20,000 years ago. In fact, many infection-prevention precautions promoted for the coronavirus—coughing etiquette, distancing, and hand washing—originated as TB-control measures in Victorian times. The COVID-19 response can draw on more challenges and lessons from TB programs that emphasize investments in research and rapid uptake of new diagnostic, prevention, and treatment tools for universal health coverage.