'TB anywhere is a threat to people everywhere'

As the children marched on Washington in support of safe schools Saturday, another life-saving cause was quietly advancing.

March 24th was also “World TB Day.” You might be asking yourself, “Why should we care about Tuberculosis? This is the United States, TB is a thing of the past, isn’t it?” Unfortunately, no. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 9,272 new cases of TB in the United States in 2016. In fact, here in Maryland, we’re one of 12 states with a higher incidence rate than the national average of infected people. However, world-wide the numbers are much worse: There are 10.4 million new cases per year, and 4,000 people die from it every single day, globally. The worst part is that TB, even the drug resistant kind, is treatable.

Tuberculosis is a leading global infectious killer, right behind HIV and AIDS. Spread mainly by a cough, the airborne disease knows no limits and disproportionately affects people in poorer areas. This is not a disease that can be prevented by avoiding certain activities, lifestyles or locations, because everyone needs to breathe. Every airplane with a single infected person coughing into the recirculating air can infect others, including you and me. Considering all this and the number of Americans who travel, I say: TB anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

While TB is curable, its treatment is lengthy, and the disease pushes people even further into poverty. Like so many other issues ailing us, the best way to treat it is to prevent it. To address these challenges, a grassroots organization called RESULTS — along with a network of dedicated volunteers like myself — advocate for increased U.S. funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Founded in 2002 as a partnership between governments, private sector, and affected individuals, The Global Fund is an innovative mechanism to provide funding for low and middle-income countries to support large prevention and treatment operations. Unlike some other funding programs which are accused of misspending, The Global Fund allocates two-thirds of its donor funding directly to treatment. It also is managed with a minimum amount of red tape and has safeguards to monitor implementation, financial management, and health outcomes.

When the U.S. first funded TB research in 1997, as a key poverty and health issue, less than $1 million in global TB funding was provided. Since then, members of Congress have realized that not only is TB a global epidemic, but that the fight against HIV and AIDS will not succeed without an equally aggressive effort against TB. In 2008, Congress signed into law the historic Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act, authorizing $48 billion over five years for lifesaving programs — including $4 billion for USAID TB — and a goal of treating 4.5 million people.

Congress is currently putting together the budget for 2019, and there is a great deal of pressure from the White House and so-called “deficit hawks” to cut USAID funding. However, it is my strong belief that if our representatives could vote to give obscene tax breaks to very wealthy people (as was done in the 2017 GOP Tax Bill) while one in eight Americans lives under the poverty line, they can certainly keep funding intact for an important public health issue that affects us all, like Tuberculosis. There are two line items in the Department of State USAID requests that will go a long way toward eradicating TB. The first is for $400 million for Bilateral Tuberculosis; and the second is for $1.35 billion for the Global Fund to fight Aids, TB, and Malaria.

Please urge all our Maryland representatives in the U.S. House and our two U.S. senators to champion these two critical line items in the fight against TB. Their action — or inaction — will affect the lives of countless people. This money can help prevent the senseless deaths of 1.7 million people internationally and the suffering of 9,200 Americans, several hundred here in Maryland, who require TB treatment each year. They can do it, but they need to hear from us, so please help.

Allison Berkowitz is an adjunct instructor at Simmons College. Her email is allison.berkowitz@simmons.edu.

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