48th Union World Conference: Global TB goals gain momentum while challenges among marginalized people, nations continue

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Theme of “Accelerating Toward Elimination” opens Union World Conference on Lung Health

Science Speaks is covering the 48th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Guadalajara, Mexico this week.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – If the theme of this year’s Union conference implies a destination that is nearly in sight, speakers at the opening session last night mapped the route there, listing the scientific and political advances they say can lead to taking elimination of a disease spanning millennia into its final stretch.

The development of treatment combinations that hold promising prospects for universal shorter treatment regimens, inclusion of tuberculosis targets within United Nations goals for 2030, the acknowledgement of tuberculosis as a global health crisis with two planned international meetings, in Moscow and at the United Nations General Assembly, the recognition that research and development of new tools to fight the disease is an urgent priority of plans to tackle antimicrobial resistance worldwide are all part of that road.

Delivering an opening talk, Union executive director Jorge Luis Castro cited all of these advances as he described “a moment of enormous opportunity,” that, despite longstanding challenges in political commitment, and continuing challenges in funding, he expressed confidence would be seized.

The stakes are high, he noted; the data having already been highlighted once again at a pre-conference World Health Organization meeting that add up to about 4,900 deaths worldwide each day, from a detectable, treatable, curable disease. “The status quo,” Castro said, “is unacceptable.”

But it was Venezuelan dentist, mother, and tuberculosis survivor Mileni Romero who painted a picture of what that status quo includes. She had studied to become a dentist, she said, because she wanted to help people in a country facing mounting challenges to community and personal well being, so her practical training included a stint in an infectious disease clinic, a military facility holding political prisoners, and a community center where she saw children who often did without food and schooling.

It was shortly after she graduated that she started feeling sick; her back hurt, her headache wouldn’t go away. Rapid diagnosis for tuberculosis is out of reach in Venezuela, she said, so she stayed sick without treatment for months. The tuberculosis she was eventually diagnosed with was extrapulmonary — outside her lungs. The treatment would eventually save her life, but made her weak and sick, and no medicine for the side effects was available in her country. The chief wage earner in a family that also included a brother and a father, she couldn’t work. And as she went from treating patients to become one, she worried about her four-year-old daughter, her brother, and her father catching the disease as well. But preventive treatment is also out of reach in her country.

She was backed by a line of other tuberculosis survivors Wednesday night as she summarized the point of her story. “The most basic human right,” she said, “is the right to live.”

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