“Tuberculosis is forgotten but not gone.”
Peg Willingham said it this morning, but the message had begun to be absorbed by Thursday, when National Press Foundation fellows attended a daylong symposium organized by the Stop TB Foundation in Cancun, Mexico. A range of experts kept asking the same question: Why can’t we get the media to pay attention?
Willingham is the Senior Director of External Affairs for Aeras Global, a nonprofit that is working with thousands of volunteers and dozens of partners to develop a new, more effective, TB vaccine. She pointed out during an exclusive discussion with NPF fellows that the H1N1 virus has so far killed about the same number of people in total as TB kills every single day. But how many tuberculosis stories have you seen on the front page lately?
To quote NPF President Bob Meyers again (see prior post), “news is what’s new,” and it seems to be hard for journalists to find what’s new about a disease that’s been killing people since the days when corpses were turned into mummies. The disease is ancient, the diagnostics are difficult and the drugs are old as well. One of Willingham’s slides showcased an early airplane with propellers and double-decker wings, and made the point that the existing tuberculosis vaccine was developed at about the same time that airplane was built – 87 years ago. A TB diagnosis is still made the old-fashioned way, using a microscope. And the first-line drugs used to treat TB haven’t changed since they were found to be effective, many decades ago.
Another of Friday’s NPF speakers was more blunt about why there is not enough written about TB and other lung diseases. “Lung disease is not only not sexy -- it’s disgusting.” This from Donald Enarson, Senior Advisor for The International Union Against TB and Lung Disease, and he’s right. Scientists don’t bat an eyelash when they talk about “smear-positive” cases of TB, but this is not something I want to talk about over lunch. I now understand that they’re talking about a smear of sputum, that slimy stuff you cough up when you're sick. Yuk.
Not only that. Lung disease eventually forces victims to live with tubes in their nose, confined to bed, or lugging around tanks of oxygen. It’s not pretty.
Enarson waves away obfuscation. Tuberculosis is old, he says. It’s messy. And it’s a disease suffered most often by poor people in poor countries. The same people who are losing two million children younger than five every year to pneumonia, another under-reported lung disease. It’s easy to diagnose, inexpensive to treat, and counts 90 percent of its victims in poor countries, most in sub-Saharan Africa. These victims – and their mothers -- are not media-savvy. They are not sophisticated. They are not white.
According to Enarson, one-sixth of the burden of global disease is lung disease, yet he’s never visited a country whose ministry of health commits resources to lung disease commensurate with that burden. Part of his job, of course, is to drum up awareness, and dollars, to fight these diseases. A few journalists are beginning to listen, including our fellows, who will begin coverage on Saturday of the 40th Union World Conference on Lung Health, here in Cancun. Stay tuned.
-- Linda Topping Streitfeld