(L-R) Federal Health Minister, The Hon Greg Hunt MP; UN Special Envoy on Tuberculosis Professor Eric Goosby; Associate Professor Helen Evans (Image: Results Australia)
In his recent visit to Australia, the United Nations Special Envoy on Tuberculosis (TB), Professor Eric Goosby, urged Australia to partner with countries in the Asia-Pacific region to help strengthen their response to TB, the world’s deadliest infectious disease.
In an address to the Tuberculosis Centre of Research Excellence (TB-CRE) in Sydney, Professor Goosby called on Australia to convene a regional response to TB, and for the global community to be more aggressive in its efforts to end the epidemic.
Professor Goosby had earlier travelled to Canberra to meet with Matt Thistlethwaite MP, Federal member for Kingsford Smith and Warren Entsch MP whose Federal electorate of Leichhardt includes Far North Queensland, Cape York and islands in the Torres Strait. Mr Entsch and Mr Thistlethwaite are co-chairs of the Australian Tuberculosis Caucus.
Professor Goosby also met with key stakeholders including senior officials in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Health, Results Australia, Pacific Friends of the Global Fund, and the Burnet Institute, represented by Professor Steve Graham and board member, Associate Professor Helen Evans AO.
“Despite significant progress in reducing deaths from tuberculosis over the last two decades, it is still the number one infectious disease killer globally, and nearly 60 per cent of those deaths are in the Asia-Pacific region – that is in our region,” Associate Professor Evans said.
The UN Special Envoy was in Australia to highlight the huge challenges to end TB and the importance of Australia’s role in the region.
“We’re at a moment where an acknowledgement of the disease is growing, but that acknowledgment needs to be matched with a strengthening of the response,” Professor Goosby told the ABC.
“Australia can play a leadership role in convening a discussion with the country leadership in the region to share that responsibility because of the threat that it affords the region, not just one country in the region.
“It’s not for Australia to take over the response, but for Australia to partner with the countries in the region to strengthen their own response, work with the countries to increase their domestic investments, and to work with donors who are already supporting activity in these countries.”
During Professor Goosby’s visit, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop MP announced Australia would be contributing an additional $20 million towards a new health security initiative with Papua New Guinea (PNG) and The World Bank to address multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in PNG.
Burnet Institute is a key technical partner in the PNG governments’ emergency response to drug resistant tuberculosis.
“Burnet’s mission is to achieve better health for vulnerable communities and TB is a disease of poor and marginalised communities, which is why it is a priority for us,” Associate Professor Evans said.
Burnet public health expert, Dr Kudakwashe Chani accompanied Professor Goosby on the last leg of his tour. a flying visit to Saibai Island situated in the Torres Strait just eight kilometres off the coast of PNG’s Western Province.
Dr Chani is the Team Leader of Burnet’s RID-TB project based in the Western Province capital, Daru, where drug-resistant TB is amongst the highest recorded globally.
“The visit enabled Professor Goosby to understand some of the unique challenges for delivery health services in the treaty village zone between PNG and Australia,” Dr Chani said.
Professor Goosby said concern about TB in the region is growing.
“The amount of tuberculosis that is present in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, but also in all the countries in South East Asia is mounting, and a number of studies have shown that the number of TB patients in the region is higher than was originally thought,” he said.
“In Indonesia, PNG, The Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, you have a little over 60 percent of the burden of tuberculosis on the planet, so it’s a concern in the region and there’s a need for leadership to step up and address it.”
According to the latest World Health Organization data, TB was responsible for more deaths globally in 2015 – around 1.8 million – than HIV and malaria combined.
A series of high-level meetings to prioritise the unmet needs in relation to TB are underway.
Last month G20 leaders met in Berlin and prioritised TB in the global AMR response in their declaration; WHO will convene a global ministerial conference on TB in 2017 and the UN General Assembly will convene a high level meeting on TB in 2018.