21 Aug 14 14 Dec 16

Opinion and debate: TB - The disease we should be worrying about

Please note: Views expressed in this section are those of the author(s) alone and do NOT reflect the official position of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Emma Vehvilainen
Digital Team - MSF UK

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If this is the first time you are hearing about Ebola, it is safe to assume you have spent the past few weeks living alone in a forest deprived of your smartphone, laptop and tablet and therefore contact with the rest of the world. 

The Ebola outbreak has not only been overwhelming West Africa for months, but also our Twitter accounts, newspaper headlines, Facebook newsfeeds and so on. 

Ebola’s media coverage

The outbreak itself started in March this year but the monumental media coverage really only began in July, with some media sources sparking fears of the possibility of the disease leaving the African continent. After all globalisation drives the spread of infectious diseases, and fear drives the spread of media attention.

Society’s fascination with apocalyptic stories and epidemics hardly makes this outbreak’s monstrous attention surprising.  

Ebola can be a fatal disease and is affecting many in West Africa physiologically and psychologically. The disease can lead to a degrading and violent death.  It is currently being hailed as one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, but what about those infectious diseases that have been claiming lives on a larger scale and for a longer time period? 


A global disease

Tuberculosis infection can take a long time to develop into active disease, presenting with symptoms like weight loss and coughing. 

Infection is preventable and treatable, and with the upscale of initiatives to provide access to treatments and diagnostics, such as MSF’s Drug Resistant TB Manifesto, mortality rates have been falling over the years. These features hardly make tuberculosis a candidate for a flashy apocalyptic story.

Tuberculosis is a global disease. It is the second deadliest infectious disease, just behind HIV, having killed 1.3 million people in 2012 alone. 

There has been a rise in drug-resistant cases of tuberculosis, which have so far been reported in 92 countries. It has been estimated that 20 percent of those previously treated for tuberculosis are developing a drug-resistant form of infection. These infections often require at least six months of treatment, involving toxic and expensive drugs. 


What further fuels the need for attention to be put on tuberculosis, and why the disease may also be so largely ignored, is the fact that tuberculosis is not purely a medical issue. It may be a global disease but the poorest populations in the world are the ones most susceptible to infection. 

Tuberculosis thrives in overcrowded and poorly ventilated houses and prisons, and immigrants make up the brunt of tuberculosis patients in developed countries. The decline in tuberculosis cases in Europe in the early 20th century has been attributed to vast improvements in quality of life. So when addressing the disease it is hard to ignore the social inequalities it is often associated with. 

Many of those with drug resistant TB in these resource-poor settings continue to go undiagnosed, and many of those who are diagnosed do not even have access to effective treatment: only one in five of those diagnosed were on treatment in estimates as recent as 2011. 

With a seemingly continuous rise in these cases, the WHO and the Global Fund have predicted that an enormous gap in funds, 1.6 million US dollars to be exact, for treatment and diagnostics will develop. 


Limited attention

After getting to grips with these frightful figures – not to mention the 353,000 newly diagnosed cases of tuberculosis in Europe in 2012 – one might be shocked by the limited attention the disease receives. 

The need for improved treatment, prevention, and even diagnosis of a persistent disease simply does not garner the public’s interest like that of a newly emerging one. Ebola as of yet has no cure, but its attention has further thrived on the seemingly controversial use of an experimental drug. 

Tuberculosis is clearly missing this spark that would ignite such thrilling stories and headlines, despite the attention it so desperately deserves.


What do you think? Have your say and join the debate below