On childhood tuberculosis, time for action

Credit Sara Liza BaumannTuberculosis places an enormous financial and emotional burden on families. Credit Sara Liza Baumann.

Today, the ACTION Partnership releases its second brief on children and tuberculosis, issuing recommendations to combat this largely neglected epidemic.

For a disease that’s been around for thousands of years, tuberculosis still kills 1.4 million people every year.

While the old disease made recent headlines due to the emergence of virtually untreatable TB strains, its impact on children has largely gone unnoticed.

Today, the ACTION Partnership releases its second brief on childhood TB, Children and Tuberculosis: From Neglect to Action, issuing recommendations to combat this neglected epidemic.

Children with TB: Misdiagnosed and Miscounted

Even though it’s preventable and treatable, TB is a top ten killer of children worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 490,000 children get sick with TB each year – but experts agree actual figures are much higher.

Diagnosing TB in children is particularly difficult with existing tools, and next to impossible if the child is living with HIV.

Without accurate estimates, developing effective policies to address childhood TB is a challenge.
According to Jeffrey Starke, Director of both Infection Control and the Tuberculosis Initiative at Texas Children’s Hospital, “Finding and treating children who are exposed to or infected with tuberculosis is both cost-effective and morally necessary.”

TB preys on vulnerable children – the orphaned, the malnourished, and those living with HIV – and places a heavy financial and emotional burden on families.

Consider Sipho’s* story.

When he was 18 months old, Sipho began coughing and his feet began to swell.

His mother Masia* was sent home from a clinic near their home in Swaziland with medicine for a common cold, but his condition only worsened. Eventually, Sipho was diagnosed with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis – and so began an exhausting daily odyssey for him and Masia.

Every day for six months, the pair traveled six kilometers so Sipho could receive a grueling treatment regimen of injections and crushed pills.

Credit Gary Hampton
Many children with TB are misdiagnosed or undergo harsh treatments meant for adults. Credit Gary Hampton

Building Momentum to Action

Since ACTION released its first Childhood TB brief last year, the global community has paid attention. Childhood TB served as the theme of this year’s World TB Day and is the subject of new guidelines from the WHO.

But children like Sipho are still misdiagnosed and subject to harsh treatment meant for adults.

“The global TB epidemic is a disgrace. If we want to end TB as a killer of children, we need to do more than just talk, we must transform attention to this deadly disease into action,” said Kolleen Bouchane, ACTION Director.

Many barriers stand in our way – a lack of political will, inadequate funding for TB programs, and a failure to invest in the development of child-friendly diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines.

To overcome these challenges, civil society, health care workers, and the private sector must break out of their silos and work together.

For instance, civil society groups and health care workers must hold National TB Programs accountable for including children, and the private sector must work with regulatory authorities to simplify the development pathway for pediatric TB drugs.

Both donors and high burden countries must also do their share.

Donor governments must boost funding for programs that address childhood TB – particularly the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – while high burden countries must increase their own investment in national TB programming while supporting their healthcare workers to diagnose and treat kids with TB.

Read the brief – and its full list of recommendations – at Action.org and join the #kidsTB #putkids1st conversation on Twitter.

*Names have been changed to ensure confidentiality

-Angela Pereira, Senior Communications Associate, RESULTS Educational Fund – ACTION Partnership