Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare digitally addressed the 33rdStop TB Partnership Board meet, here today through Video Conference.Acknowledging that COVID-19 has turned the clock back by many years, if not decades, in the fight against infectious diseases, Dr. Harsh Vardhan said, “The deadly virus has derailed our painstaking efforts of many decades and diverted scientific attention from many infectious killer diseases like TB. The lockdowns have raised insurmountable barriers for patients and people are still living in fear of the Coronavirus. We all know that the last ten months have seen treatment interruptions, hindered availability of drugs, shrinking supply of diagnostic tests, delays in diagnosis, interrupted supply chains, diversion of manufacturing capacity and imposition of physical barriers for patients who must travel to distant clinics to pick up the medications.”Congratulating the Stop TB Partnership for proactively contacting countries regarding the implementation of their TB Programs during the pandemic, the Minister highlighted India’s “TB Harega, Desh Jeetega” campaign that targets to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal target related to TB by 2025, five years ahead of the global target of 2030; India had nearly trebled efforts on increasing TB notifications and had managed to close the gap in ‘Missing million TB cases’.Taking stock of the setback caused by COVID, he noted, “During the period of January to October 2020, only 14.5 lakh TB cases have been notifiedwhich is 29% lower than the same period in 2019, with the decline being over 35 - 40% in some States like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and Goa.” In the same vein, he also highlighted the silver lining in states like Sikkim, Telangana, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha whichhad witnessed less than 20% impact even during the lockdown period. “These states strategized to integrate their TB case finding activities with COVID preventive measures,” he added.Elaborating on the steps taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Harsh Vardhan mentioned the Union Health Ministry’s recommendation of bi-directional TB-COVID screening, screening among ILI and SARI cases, intensifying of private sector engagement, re-deployment of the repurposed HR and CBNAAT and TrueNaT machines back to the TB program.
He, thereafter gave an account of how TB services are gradually recovering with the measures undertaken, “Health facilities are opening up and more and more people are presenting themselves before the government and private health clinics to get tested. Case finding through outreach activities in the community have also picked up. With the gradual return of staff who had been diverted for COVID activities, public health action such as counselling, contact tracing and disbursement of nutritional support are also picking up.”Speaking on India’s strategy of turning the crisis into opportunity, Dr. Harsh Vardhan said, “COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to boost TB Elimination activities through Health System Strengthening and Infectious Diseases Control”. Specifically, he highlighted that:Several dedicated Infectious Disease Hospitals have come up as a part of the pandemic response measures which would contribute in a major way towards TB care and management.The molecular diagnostic capacity of the country has increased multi-fold. These multi-platform devices based on cartridge and chip-based technology can decentralize TB diagnosis.Behavioural changes acquired during the pandemic such as cough hygiene, use of masks, physical distancing will further help reduce the transmission of Tuberculosis which is a respiratory illness.The increased uptake of telemedicine and teleconsultation during the pandemic will provide channels of consultation for tuberculosis.Exhorting the health leadership of the world to drive government policy, raise investments in healthcare sector and also raise the awareness of the general masses towards the loss of precious lives that is happening through uncontrolled infectious diseases like TB, Dr. Harsh Vardhan ended his address by noting: “TB elimination is not so difficult if we can create a mass movement against the disease. It needs strategized advocacy, thought leadership and disruptive social entrepreneurship. It needs mass mobilisation, aggressive campaigns, powerful partners and deep commitments. And most of all, it needs a powerful societal and political commitment.”Sh. Vikas Sheel, Jt. Secretary (Health) and other senior officials were also present at the meet.