microscopic view of tuberculosis bacteria

Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause tuberculosis, taken through a scanning electron microscope and digitally colorized. (Photo credit: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via the CDC’s Public Health Image Library)

The entire world could be free of tuberculosis (TB) by 2045, if world leaders decided today to invest a cumulative amount of at least $2 billion in a year in research and development, leading to effective treatment and prevention of the disease.

That is the premise of a report in the Lancet Global Health journal written by leading global TB experts and researchers including Victoria Fan, an assistant professor of public health in the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

TB kills about 1.6 million people worldwide yearly, more than any other infectious disease, but it can be cured with antibiotics. The just released research findings show that spending money on curing TB is one of the best ways that healthcare systems around the world can invest in the health of their people.

“If we direct global resources to curing people and preventing the spread of TB, we would save millions of lives and enormous amounts of money in the long run,” said Fan.

Creating a roadmap

Victoria Y. Fan

Initially for world leaders, the costs of diagnosing and treating TB would increase in the short run, the report acknowledges. However, each life saved represents a person who can become a lasting, contributing member of their respective local economies.

The researchers’ economic analysis showed that the concerted effort would result in a strong return on investment. For example, for every dollar spent on TB research and development in the U.S., there is an estimated return of $16–$82 to the economy.

“The goal of this Lancet Commission was to create a roadmap to a TB-free world,” Fan said. “The commission found that different countries will need different solutions. For example, in some countries, many people have TB that is resistant to certain antibiotics, so they need different plans than places where drug-resistance is less common.”

Imagining a TB-free world

The report said several major steps are needed to achieve a TB-free world. One is that healthcare leaders must expand strategies that are proven to diagnose and treat people with TB, such as increasing the reach of healthcare to all populations at risk of TB. Currently, 35 percent of TB cases worldwide go undiagnosed or are untreated.

There also must be greater investment in speeding up the pace of research aimed at creating TB prevention programs that work and TB control policies that are effective, the report said. Moreover, private companies, local governments and national leaders need to work together to drive the changes that are needed.

“Ridding the world of TB is a realistic goal,” Fan said. “Our report gives the health leaders of the world solid recommendations for action steps they can take to end this epidemic.”