“TB is Not a Drama Queen”

By Maureen Byrne

September 26, 2018

September 26, 2018 – I found answers to many of my questions in this simple statement: “TB is not a drama queen.” It was a light quip amid many insightful and heartfelt comments delivered by Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa Minister of Health during a panel discussion at Sunday’s TB Innovation Summit at the start of this year’s United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Why was tuberculosis (TB) – a global health crisis that takes the lives of 4,000 people every single day – not higher on my radar screen? Having worked for more than 20 years in health communications on diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS and malaria to rare cancers and respiratory illnesses, why had TB not captured a bigger part of my consciousness?

Turns out I’m not alone. Nearly every speaker at the Summit highlighted the need for increased awareness, commitment and action to address TB, a preventable and curable disease that has remained far too unnoticed. It’s in that spirit that I share some of my learnings in hopes that TB will capture the hearts and minds of my friends – as one thing is imminently clear: solving the challenge of TB and eradicating the disease by 2030 will only be achieved through collaboration and engagement across a multitude of stakeholders.

Survivor stories need to be told: organizers opened and closed the summit with testimonials of TB survivors. Amplifying their stories of misdiagnosis, despair, burdensome treatment (for some, this means daily injections for up to 18 months), economic, familial and social impacts and HOPE will help the global health community to deliver human-centered solutions to address this epidemic. At the meeting close, Tamaryn Green, Miss South Africa, shared her story with us asserted a passionate plea to elevate awareness of TB, as she is doing personally through the #BreakTheStigma campaign.

Public-private partnerships and cross-sector collaboration have been pivotal in addressing TB and will continue to be so to eradicate the disease. The Stop TB Partnership serves as a crucial player, collaborating with the private sector to solve for some of the most systemic barriers in the fight against TB. At the summit, leaders called for the engagement of more private sectors companies – in the healthcare sector and beyond. And, a call for young people and new thinkers to join the community in coming up with innovative new ideas and strategies for implementation.

Optimism is high, momentum is strong and innovations are progressing. Countries like South Africa and Nigeria have stepped up with major commitments to tackle TB in their communities. The first new TB treatment in 40 years was recently approved, helping to address the major challenge of drug-resistant TB. Potentially game-changing vaccine candidates are in the pipeline. Diagnostics have advanced. Sustaining commitment to continued innovation is key, as the race to end TB is a marathon that is far from over.

As the UN General Assembly convenes the first-ever High-Level Meeting on Ending TB today, I’ll be watching to see what commitments are made and what calls-to-action are identified, so that I can personally understand what myself and my KYNE colleagues can do to apply our communications expertise to help address this global health challenge. For any others like me who perhaps haven’t had TB in their sights, I’d encourage you to do the same. We can all play a role. And to those who have already been working hard to combat this global challenge, I look forward to joining you in the fight. Working together, we can end TB in our lifetime. For additional resources and information, please see: http://www.stoptb.org/ and http://www.who.int/tb/features_archive/UNGA_HLM_ending_TB/en/.