On the 12th of August, Congresswoman Angelina “Helen” Tan convened members of the Philippines Department of Health and Stop TB Partnership, Geneva in a coordination call to discuss the national impact of COVID-19 on tuberculosis (TB) services and address the need for scale-up in the diagnosis of both diseases.
Congresswoman Tan, Co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Global TB Caucus, led a call between representatives of the Department of Health and Stop TB Partnership to discuss additional challenges in the TB response stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and to identify pathways to ensure that TB remains a priority of national and global health funding and programmes.
COVID-19 pandemic and mitigation measures continue to have a significant impact on the economies of many countries, including the Philippines. Under Secretary Rossete reported on the use of GeneXpert in COVID-19 testing in the Philippines - including the 99.9% rate of COVID-19 cartridge distribution with 88.4% utilisation, and the current wait on additional cartridges. Dr. Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director of Stop TB Partnership, detailed the procurement mechanism for these cartridges and the potential use of Truenat in diagnosing both TB and COVID, providing a recommendation for tandem testing for both diseases to mitigate shortfalls due to health resource reallocation.
The Philippines has the 4th highest TB burden in the world. In 2018, an estimated 594,000 people fell ill and 26,000 died from TB. Only about 63% of those infected were diagnosed and received treatment, indicating that approximately 200,000 patients were missed. Although significant progress has been made in the response over the last decade and a strong focus placed on meeting ambitious regional and global targets, rates are still high and there remains ample room for improvement. Any setbacks in control of the TB epidemic now will have devastating long term implications of unnecessarily lost lives, and the roll back of achievements to the low levels of 2015.
While prioritisation of national budgets continue to be redirected to address and control the pandemic, TB and Multiple Drug Resistant TB (MDR-TB) are currently killing more patients in the Philippines than COVID. Dr Suvanand Sahu, Deputy Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership, highlighted a significant drop in case notification over the course of the pandemic and lockdown and the importance of swift recovery, referring to a modelling analysis conducted by Stop TB.
The Philippines National Strategic Plan (NSP) to end TB (PhilSTEP1), presented in March 2020, outlined an innovative plan that is technically sound and foundationally sustained by robust domestic financing. This bold approach secured important commitments from donors and partners in reducing financial gaps in the Philippine National TB program, but this is only one element in the long hard fight to eliminate TB.
Congresswoman Tan left participants with a strong reminder of the importance of acknowledging the connection between pandemics, and of the destructive consequences of complacency in allowing the TB response to be disrupted - especially in high-burden areas - and that finding sustainable long-term solutions may lie in innovation in testing TB and COVID in parallel.