Despite progress made in recent years, tuberculosis (TB) remains a challenge for the world, participants heard at the special opening session of the Second Global Forum on TB Vaccines in Tallinn, Estonia. New vaccines could make a significant difference.
Christopher Dye of the World Health Organization in Geneva pointed out that treatment success and case detection has shown tremendous improvement in the past decades. "The TB incidence rate is going down, but the problem is that it is going down slowly," Dye explained. "The dominant reason for the lack of success is persistent transmission," he said, referring to the difficulties of diagnosing patients promptly within weak health systems.
Dye underlined that various new tools are needed in the fight against TB. But if there would be a new vaccine it would "really change the game", he emphasized. "It would have a big impact and shift the emphasis from cure to prevention," Dye said, stating that he sees reasons to be hopeful a vaccine can be found.
Also Peter Small, Senior Program Officer for TB at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called an effective new vaccine a 'game changer' that would 'revolutionize the fight against TB'. "An effective TB vaccine would fundamentally transform the strategy for global TB control and permanently change the trajectory of the epidemic," Small said, emphasizing increased funding and commitment will be critical to continue progress in TB vaccine research and development. "Government and philanthropy must do their part, but so must leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies around the globe."
"Vaccines are the best buy in public health - we believe strongly in the power of vaccines to improve health and save lives," he said. "Childhood vaccines are modern miracles - for just a few dollars per child they prevent death and disease for a lifetime. They are also a smart, long-term investment - immunizations give kids a shot at a healthy, productive life and healthy children lead to healthier families and more self sufficient communities and countries."
Scientists, clinicians, manufacturers, NGOs and governmental institutions from around the world this week will review the progress made in vaccine development in the past decade and look forward to the challenges and opportunities ahead. Tallinn has been selected as the venue for the meeting as TB is a significant health problem in Estonia, yet the country has been successful in the fight against the airborne infectious disease.
"We have seen good results but we need to go further," Hanno Pevkur, Estonian minister of Social Affairs, said at the opening session. "Multidrug resistance is our biggest problem, but also TB/HIV co-infection as well as TB and alcohol abuse. We have to look at the future and have special programs."
"We have different problems," Piret Viiklepp, head of the Estonian Tuberculosis Registry and special guest at the conference, agrees. "And if we want to reduce TB we have to work with all problems."
According to her political commitment has made a difference in the country. "All treatment is free of charge, but only under DOTS (directly observed treatment, short-course). You can't just be treated by your doctor or go to the pharmacy and ask for TB drugs. You have to go through DOTS programs. That way we also hope to prevent multidrug-resistant (MDR) TB from spreading."
The Second Global Forum on TB Vaccines, with around 200 participants one of the largest TB vaccine gatherings for a decade, will continue until September 24. (CNS)
(The author is a freelance journalist, a Fellow of CNS Writers' Bureau and Associate Communications at TuBerculosis Vaccine Initiative – TBVI)