COVID disrupts fight against TB

| October 31, 2020 | 0 Comments
Doctors in a TB hospital in Afghanistan analyze some test results. TB has become a more pressing problem as COVID concerns have overtaken efforts to curb it. (Photo: un photo )

Doctors in a TB hospital in Afghanistan analyze some test results. TB has become a more pressing problem as COVID concerns have overtaken efforts to curb it. (Photo: un photo )

6.3 million people will develop TB by 2025 due to COVID-related diversions of health-care services; another 1.4 million will die.

Editor’s note: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group wrote a report titled The Impact of COVID-19 on the TB epidemic: A community perspective. We excerpt the executive summary and key findings here.

Tuberculosis is the world’s leading infectious disease, killing approximately 1.5 million people each year. Despite global and national efforts to end tuberculosis (TB) and the availability of cost-effective medicines to treat and cure it, too many people continue to suffer from this old disease. In response to early warnings that COVID-19 was having a devastating impact on people affected by TB and TB programs around the world, 10 global networks quickly came together to take action. They launched a civil society-led survey, aimed at richening our understanding of experiences in various regions and key stakeholder groups, with the following objectives:
• To identify critical gaps and needs in TB services resulting from the pandemic and raise awareness among national governments, program implementers, policymakers, parliamentarians and the wider global health community;
• To raise the voices of TB-affected communities and civil society to ensure their ideas and concerns were incorporated into national, regional and global responses;
• To support greater alignment of TB and COVID-19 priorities and services at the country level;
•To work collaboratively to ensure co-ordinated advocacy efforts and concrete political actions to address identified gaps in funding, resources, and services;
• To strengthen engagement of and relationships across TB-affected communities and civil-society networks engaged in the fight to end TB.
•The findings of the survey offer a grassroots perspective on how COVID-19 is impacting five key stakeholder groups, namely, people with TB, front-line health-care workers, program and policy officers, TB researchers and TB advocates. The report provides a summary of findings for each stakeholder group.

People with TB: People with TB from Kenya and India 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 health-care visit were cited as key barriers. People with TB also reported experiencing increased stigma due to the similar symptoms of both respiratory diseases. While most people with TB were given additional medicines to continue treatment at home, they expressed a clear and urgent need for immediate non-medical support, including nutritional, economic and psychosocial support.

(Photo: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group)

Frontline health-care workers: TB front-line health-care workers reported significant reductions in TB care due to the pandemic. The main reasons for interruptions related to the redeployment of essential resources and personnel to respond to the public health crisis at hand and generally weak health systems struggling to cope with an influx in demand on services. Participants around the world reported a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and underscored how the unsafe and challenging working conditions were resulting in low morale and mental health issues. There is an urgent need for increased support, including investment in PPE, personnel, supplies and tools, as well as innovations in programming to offer quality digital and community-based care.

Policy and program officers: Responses from policy and program officers revealed that TB services and program resources had declined significantly because of the pandemic. TB notifications have decreased drastically and personnel are being redeployed to respond to COVID-19. Participants from the U.S. and countries implementing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) reported decreases in the number of TB-afflicted people accessing care, as well as increases in stockouts of or delays in TB medicines. Interruptions to TB programs included programmatic capacity, stigma and fear, human-rights violations and other psychosocial factors that impeded people with TB from accessing TB services. Programs are being adapted and need further financial support to increase and sustain the innovative mechanisms being deployed, such as telemedicine and family- or community-based care. The significant investments currently being made to respond to COVID-19 should be leveraged to strengthen the TB response.

TB advocates: Individuals employed with civil-society or non-governmental organizations working to end TB, or who identified as a TB advocate or TB survivor from Global Fund-implementing countries, expressed deep concern for TB advocacy and people with TB as a result of the pandemic. Diverted political and media attention to COVID-19 was said to be seriously affecting advocacy work. Participants also raised alarm bells about people with TB not being able to access care and social support, and community support groups not being able to reach affected communities during lockdowns. Human rights issues, including stigma, economic inequalities, food insecurity, and fear were cited as key challenges in responding to COVID-19 and TB. To tackle the challenges at hand, advocates called for a strengthening of TB-affected communities’ capacity and engagement in the fight to end the epidemic and pandemic.

(Photo: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group )

(Photo: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group )

TB researchers: TB researchers around the world reported significant interruptions in TB research associated with a diversion of personnel, equipment and funding of COVID-19 over TB. Survey participants repeatedly noted existing lab space and infrastructure being closed during lockdowns or repurposed for COVID-19. Similarly, respondents experienced reduced access to research participants due to immobility during lockdowns. There is unified demand from TB researchers for additional and continued resources for TB and for research investments in COVID-19 to be leveraged for TB. TB research and infrastructure are currently being leveraged for COVID-19-related research.
The survey’s findings complement reports on the devastating impact of COVID-19 on efforts to end TB published by the Global Coalition of TB Activists, Stop TB Partnership, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund), the Global TB Caucus, the Americas TB Coalition and Stop TB Partnership Indonesia. Assessments and modelling done by the Stop TB Partnership, Global Coalition of TB Activists, Imperial College London and the World Health Organization show that an additional 6.3 million people will develop TB by 2025 due to COVID-19-related disruptions of TB services, while an additional 1.4 million people will die. Similarly, a recent report by the Global Fund warned that progress made in the fight against HIV, TB and malaria over the past two decades is at serious risk, estimating that deaths from the three diseases could double if health and social support systems are overwhelmed, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care programs are disrupted, and resources are diverted. The COVID-19 pandemic is badly disrupting TB services everywhere and threatens to reverse hard-won gains in the fight to end the epidemic and achieve the UN High Level Meeting targets, the End TB Strategy, the Global Plan to End TB 2018–2022 and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The impacts of COVID-19 are not being felt equally across or within countries. Prior to the pandemic, every year approximately 100 million people were pushed into poverty because of health-care-associated costs, and half the world’s population did not have access to the health care they needed. These already vulnerable populations are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and are the same people hit hardest by TB: children, people living with HIV/AIDS, mobile populations (migrants and refugees), Indigenous groups, miners, prisoners and people who use drugs. We know that the challenges and barriers to accessing COVID-19 and TB services disproportionately affect those who are most vulnerable and/or already marginalized. This impact is a particular concern from the perspective of human rights, stigma and gender.
As civil-society groups and people affected by TB, we report on our findings intending to outline concerns and needed actions with a people-centered lens and language that reduces stigma. Our findings present lived experiences, lessons learned, advocacy recommendations and opportunities for mitigating the damage done by COVID-19 to get countries back on track to elimination targets, as well as for “building back better” to end TB. The urgency and need is great, which is why we will continue to co-ordinate and ensure the findings of this initiative are used to mobilize and equip advocates to take action around the world. We urge the global community to activate a multidisciplinary, emergency “all hands on deck” response to COVID-19 and TB. We know that united our calls will not go unheard.

Key findings

1. COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on the number of people seeking and receiving health care for TB.
Around the world, more than 70 per cent of health-care workers reported a decrease in the number of people coming to health facilities for TB testing. Health-care workers also reported reductions in the number of people with TB coming to facilities for treatment: 45 per cent in the U.S. and 63 per cent in Global Fund-implementing countries.
In Kenya, 50 per cent of people with TB reported having trouble finding transport to care facilities, while in India, 36 per cent of people with TB said the health facilities they normally visited were closed.
Around the world, policy and program officers reported significant drops in TB notifications (88 per cent in Global Fund-implementing countries and 68 per cent in the U.S.). 70 per cent of officers from Global Fund-implementing countries reported a decrease in the number of TB-affected people receiving treatment.
Seventy-five per cent of advocates from Global Fund-eligible countries reported a decrease in TB testing during the pandemic, while 73 per cent reported people with TB to be facing significant challenges accessing treatment and care.

2. COVID-19 is driving people with TB into poverty, and social isolation is increasing inequities and human rights-related barriers to TB services.
Qualitative and quantitative findings indicate that people with TB urgently need nutritional and socio-economic support. Seventy per cent of Kenyan respondents reported not receiving enough support during the pandemic.
Advocates and health-care workers called strongly for people with TB to be provided with nutritional support and transport costs to and from clinics.
More than half of people with TB in Kenya and India said they feared contracting COVID-19 at a health facility, while more than half of people with TB in Kenya said they felt shame because of the similar symptoms of TB and COVID-19.
Sixty-one per cent of advocates for Global Fund-eligible countries reported an increase in misinformation and stigma in relation to people with TB, identifying stigma, human rights barriers and fear as serious challenges to effective TB and COVID-19 responses.

(Photo: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group)

(Photo: The TB/COVID-19 Civil Society Organizations working group)

3. Health systems everywhere are weak and ill-equipped to respond to simultaneous COVID-19 and TB epidemics.
There is not enough PPE for people working in TB around the globe, resulting in unsafe and challenging working conditions. Sixty-nine per cent of health-care workers in Global Fund-implementing countries and 36 per cent in the U.S. reported a lack of PPE to safely care for people with TB and COVID-19.
Across public and private settings, more than 65 per cent of policy and program officers in Global Fund-implementing countries and the U.S. reported health-care facilities to be reducing TB services during the pandemic. Similarly, more than half of health-care workers around the world said the facility at which they worked had decreased TB services.
Sixty-two per cent of policy and program officers in the U.S. and 48 per cent in Global Fund-eligible countries reported an increase in stockouts of TB medicines.
Health-care workers globally said capacity issues were affecting their ability to provide TB care and diagnostics services.
Fifty-nine per cent of advocates in Global Fund-implementing countries reported resources for people with TB being diverted to the COVID-19 response.
Fifty-seven per cent of TB researchers globally said they did not have the necessary resources to conduct important TB research during the pandemic.

4. People working in the TB field are seeing significant interruptions and diversions of their work and research to COVID-19.
A majority of TB policy and program officers reported being reassigned to respond to COVID-19 (87 per cent in the U.S. and 59 per cent in Global Fund-eligible countries).
TB researchers around the world reported work/travel disruptions (90 per cent), delays in research (81 per cent) and employees being redirected to work on COVID-19-related projects (73 per cent).
Globally, more than half of all health-care workers reported reductions in TB services where they worked, particularly in private settings.
Advocates from Global Fund-implementing countries expressed frustration with political attention being diverted to COVID-19 and its dominance of the information and media space.
Sixty-nine per cent of advocates from Global Fund-eligible countries said their work with TB-afflicted people had decreased during the pandemic.

5. Those working in the TB field are reporting a large decrease in funding for TB.
Fifty-three per cent of advocates from Global Fund-implementing countries said funding for TB was diverted to the COVID-19 response, while 51 per cent said donor support for TB had decreased.
Sixty-five per cent of policy and program officers from Global Fund-implementing countries said TB funding was being diverted to the COVID-19 response.
All groups called strongly for additional funding and increased resources to respond effectively and safely to
COVID-19 and TB.
Thirty-four per cent of TB researchers said their funding for TB had decreased since the beginning of the pandemic.

6. On a positive note, countries have swiftly responded to pandemic-related disruptions by innovating in TB service-delivery. Respondents identified significant opportunities for innovation and adaptation in service-delivery in the current context.
More than half of people with TB in Kenya and India reported having received additional medicine to continue treatment at home. Health-care workers likewise reported sending people with TB home with treatment during the pandemic (78 per cent in Global Fund-implementing countries and 57 per cent in the U.S.).
Sixty per cent of researchers around the world said COVID-19-related research projects on which they were working could be repurposed or leveraged for TB.
Policy and program officers lauded program innovations to boost virtual care and support, as well as TB community-led initiatives being adapted to incorporate TB- and COVID-19-related challenges, producing real-time information on accessibility, acceptability, availability and quality of services.
Respondents reported the successful use of innovative solutions in telemedicine and digital health (video, phone,
WhatsApp, apps, social media, etc.), as well as greater family and community support for people on TB treatment.
All groups emphasized that people-centred adaptations and empowering measures should be sustained beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
All groups identified an opportunity to strengthen the TB response during the pandemic: Investments in COVID-19, such as in contact-tracing or diagnostic capacity, can be leveraged for TB, while heightened interest in and awareness of infectious respiratory diseases and global health offer an entry point for increasing the political will to end TB.

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