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TB Cases, Deaths Increase After Decades Decline: WHO

Gladys Rara undergoes screening before being tested for tuberculosis at a mobile clinic in Gugulethu township near Cape Town, South Africa, March 26, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Tuberculosis cases and deaths increased last year for the first time in more than 20 years, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic which disrupted access to diagnosis and treatment, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Tereza Kasaeva, the director of the UN health agency's global TB program, said it was now a "pivotal moment" in the fight against the disease.

"For the first time in nearly two decades, WHO is reporting an increase in the number of people falling ill with TB and the drug-resistant tuberculosis, alongside an increase in TB related deaths," she said.

The WHO annual Global TB report estimates TB killed 1.6 million people in 2021 - up 14 percent in two years. While an estimated 10.6 million people fell ill with TB in 2021, a 4.5 percent increase from 2020.

"The overarching finding of this report is that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a damaging impact on access to TB diagnosis and treatment and the burden of TB disease," the WHO said.

"Progress made in the years up to 2019 has slowed, stalled or reversed, and global TB targets are off track."

Most people who developed TB last year were in southeast Asia (45 percent), Africa (23 percent) and the Western Pacific region (18 percent).

Eight countries accounted for more than two thirds of the global total of cases: India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The WHO said conflicts around the world, the global energy crisis and associated risks to food security were likely to worsen the situation further.

"The top priority is to restore access to and provision of essential TB services, so that levels of TB case detection and treatment can recover to at least 2019 levels," the report said.