GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Pediatric TB physician Dr. Jeffrey Starke described a dismal reality as he opened his talk here in the opening conference session: One million children around the world becoming sick with tuberculosis each year, more than 200,000 of them dying, each year.
“A preventable, treatable disease,” he said, “that is not being treated, and is certainly not being prevented.”
Calling tuberculosis infection in children the “reservoir from which future cases will spring,” Starke argued that addressing TB infection and disease in children is not only a moral imperative, but essential to ending tuberculosis globally.
He believes, however, that the numbers he cited, and the evidence of neglect they represent, can, and will change.
“I am more optimistic than I have ever been after more than 30 years of serving as a childhood tuberculosis physician,” Dr. Starke, a professor of pediatric infectious disease medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said.
What has changed? Predominately data, that put numbers to the results of barriers that have kept children with TB undetected, undiagnosed and untreated, of gaps in funding and recognition that have stalled the development of the medicines and diagnostic tools they need, and of uninformed priorities have left their needs overlooked even in programs dedicated to child health.
Those numbers, painstakingly and belatedly collected, he said, led to the World Health Organization Roadmap for Childhood Tuberculosis, to UNICEF attention to the impact of the disease on children, to UNITAID and other efforts to accelerate access to child-friendly anti-TB medicines, and to finally, inclusion of children in contact tracing of people with tuberculosis, including in door-to-door efforts in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The data also he said, has drawn the attention of national governments and foundations. But the need to apply the data on the ground continues, he said.
“For children, patient-centered care is not enough,” he said. Tackling childhood tuberculosis requires “family-centered care.”
The guiding principle is straightforward, he said: “Children have the same right as adults to benefit from tuberculosis care and research.”