NEW DELHI: Pointing out that the weekly detection of new tuberculosis cases in India has gone down by nearly 75 per cent during the COVID-19 lockdown, a paper published by the World Health Organisation has expressed concern that undetected and untreated cases could lead to a major spike in TB deaths.
The analysis in the paper suggested that while the decline in TB case detection globally is nearly 25 per cent due to the policies widely adopted in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly lockdowns and reassignments of health personnel and equipment, the problem may have been even more acute in India.
The paper titled "Predicted impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global tuberculosis deaths in 2020” said that during the three weeks after 22 March, the number of reported cases was found to be 11,367 weekly on an average -- as compared to 45,875 weekly cases reported before the lockdown.
The decline in the cases has been both in public and private hospitals.
The numbers are based on the cases reported on NIKSHAY, a portal maintained by the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, for TB cases across the country.
The figure is a major worry for the country where TB, a highly infectious disease, is considered the biggest public health challenge and kills more than 2.2 lakh people every year. The country also has the largest TB burden globally and a whopping 27 lakh people in India have the disease.
“A global TB case detection decrease by an average 25 % over a period of 3 months (as compared to the level of detection before the pandemic), will lead to a predicted additional 1,90,000 TB deaths (a 13% increase), bringing the total to 1.66 (1.3–2.1) million TB deaths in 2020,” the WHO paper said.
It added that if the prediction is borne out, the global TB status could be pushed back by five years and the number of the deaths could be similar to the ones reported in 2015.
Given that a majority of TB deaths reported worldwide are from India, TB patients in the country could be the worst hit and thousands could lose their lives due to lack of access to timely treatment.
A senior official with the RNTCP conceded that during the initial days of the lockdown when the Centre had asked government and private hospitals to avoid “non-critical” health procedures, the TB programme too was heavily impacted.
“However, it was quickly realized that the TB programme among other essential health services was badly hit and subsequent advisories were sent to the states to ensure that critical care services including TB treatment is offered to patients without any disruption,” the official said, adding, “We are expecting the situation to improve.”