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U.S. must do more to battle tuberculosis around the world | READER COMMENTARY

In this March 24, 2014, file photo, a doctor examines a tuberculosis patient in a government TB hospital in Allahabad, India. As the world focuses on the pandemic, experts fear losing ground in the long fight against other infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and cholera that kill millions every year. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File)
In this March 24, 2014, file photo, a doctor examines a tuberculosis patient in a government TB hospital in Allahabad, India. As the world focuses on the pandemic, experts fear losing ground in the long fight against other infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and cholera that kill millions every year. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File) (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

July marks the half-year point in the COVID-19 pandemic. This period in our collective history has laid bare the stark deficiencies in our health care system. As a young adult, I grew up witnessing bipartisan health care successes, including the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief under George W. Bush, enhanced action on Ebola under Barack Obama, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s ongoing work in global tuberculosis relief. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge, our government’s commitment to broader concerns of public health around the world has become increasingly unsteady.

In light of a massive and legitimate call for resources to address COVID-19, no unified federal response has been made to maintain our crucial global health and disease control programs. By diverting the available resources rather than expanding total allocations, our government is putting U.S.-led health interventions at risk of serious backslides that will have long-lasting consequences.

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As coronavirus dominates the news cycle, tuberculosis has been quietly causing a greater death toll. Maryland has one of the highest rates of TB in the U.S., but does not come close to the burden this communicable disease has beyond our borders. Well before COVID-19 was on the radar, TB was killing 1.5 million individuals per year. This impact is only exacerbated by COVID-19.

TB is chronically underfunded relative to its morbidity. Despite our having the ability to treat 94% of cases for around $40 a person, it still kills more people per year than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. Without access to treatment, approximately 70% of people with tuberculosis will die.

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Dishearteningly, a model projection commissioned by the Stop TB Partnership shows that a 3-month pandemic lockdown followed by a 10-month recovery period could lead to 6.3 million additional cases of TB with a 16% increase in deaths worldwide.

The partnership predicts that unless we safeguard TB programs, the pandemic will set the fight against TB back five to eight years. This is not a call to scale back the COVID-19 response, but rather to bring greater attention to critical U.S.-funded global health programs that are backsliding due to the reallocation of resources.

As Marylanders, we have a unique capability to influence global TB policy at home through Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the subcommittee that allocates funding for foreign aid.

To sustain USAID’s TB programs at pre-coronavirus levels, experts are calling for $400 million in regular appropriations for the USAID TB account, and an additional $200 million in the next stimulus package to supplement urgent TB relief. As an advocate for the medically-underserved, I call upon Senator Van Hollen to support this funding, otherwise the COVID-19 pandemic will merely be the first of many to come.

Sydney Steel, Silver Spring

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