• Many Australians believe that TB has been eradicated, and wrongly so. (The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria)Source: The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria
The age-old airborne bacterial illness infects 10.4 million people and kills 1.8 million people a year, so why do we continue to downplay its existence?
Leila Stennett

18 Apr 2017 - 12:52 PM  UPDATED 18 Apr 2017 - 2:35 PM

A couple of weeks ago, a story about one young Sydney man with tuberculosis (TB) hit the front pages of local newspapers and was picked up by media outlets around the country. The man had contracted TB after travelling to several countries where the illness is more common than in Australia. It was reported that he was misdiagnosed in Sydney and, along the way, he inadvertently infected several other people.

In our experience, this story is not rare. At RESULTS, a global health and development advocacy body, we’ve heard numerous stories about TB from our volunteers and those we work with.

Although the young man in Sydney is now almost completely recovered, his situation was incredibly unfortunate and a clear example of why, even in Australia with its excellent healthcare system, diagnosis and treatment for TB is essential. It’s always essential for that ‘one rare case’ and for the millions of people around the world affected by the disease.

But this 'rare case' and the global TB situation as a whole raises a few questions: why do we only care about an issue or a disease when it knocks on our own door? How is it that we’re all able to largely ignore this age-old airborne bacterial illness that infects 10.4 million people and kills 1.8 million people a year?

Explainer: What is TB and am I at risk of getting it in Australia?
Tuberculosis (TB) hit the headlines this week, after a man in Sydney was diagnosed with the infection three months after he first reported symptoms. But what is TB and what sort of risk does it pose to Australians?

The truth is that most Australians are able to ignore TB successfully: the majority of people I’ve spoken to who live in big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, genuinely believe that TB has been eradicated. But it wasn’t so long ago that TB was a very real, local problem. In 1907 in Australia, TB was the leading cause of death for women and the second-leading cause of death for men. At that time, there were whole hospitals and isolation wards for TB patients across the country, and throughout the world. But over recent decades in more prosperous countries, greater health awareness, the advent of effective treatment and better population hygiene meant that the disease was largely overcome. As a result, we’ve stopped talking about it. And that’s a big problem.

As higher-income countries like Australia have seemingly forgotten about TB, it has gained traction around the globe. Although rates of TB in the UK have been declining since 2011, the number of cases there - particularly in London - remain high, especially when compared with the rest of Western Europe. The growing global resistance to antibiotics means that the risk TB poses has never completely disappeared. Wouldn’t it be smarter to continue working towards stopping TB altogether, rather than just stop talking about it and assume our good luck will last? 

...the majority of people I’ve spoken to who live in big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, genuinely believe that TB has been eradicated.

TB is an infectious, airborne disease that doesn’t respect borders or boundaries. If you travel to any high-burden country for TB, such as India or Indonesia, there’s always a possibility you could catch TB. TB is already in parts of far North Queensland, where rates of the disease are higher than in the rest of Australia, particularly in Indigenous communities.

Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, sits just four kilometres north of Cape York. It has one of the highest rates of TB cases in the world with 33 000 new cases of TB diagnosed there in 2015, 3600 (11 per cent) of them in children aged 14 and under.

Turning a blind eye is not a proven solution for a global health problem like TB. Every single life is precious - we should each have an equal chance at living happy and healthy lives, including those living in the poorest parts of the world, who don’t have access to the kind of healthcare that adequately treats TB. Continuing to research innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent diseases like TB, with a helping hand from Australian Aid, is in the best interest of humanity.

Leila Stennett is the Campaigns Director at RESULTS International Australia and the Head of the Secretariat of the Australian TB Caucus.

RESULTS aims to generate the public and political will to end poverty, focusing our advocacy on global health issues such as tuberculosis (TB), HIV, malaria, polio, child health and nutrition, as well as education and microfinance.

Sydney TB cases being treated-NSW Health
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