Op-Ed by Ambassador Verma: TB Survivors Can Show Us The Way Forward

On a cool Delhi evening earlier this month at the U.S. Embassy, five brave tuberculosis (TB) survivors came together to tell their stories about overcoming this difficult disease.  Included in the group was Amitabh Bachchan, the eminent Indian actor and Brand Ambassador for the Call to Action for a TB-free India.  He drove home the message that TB can happen to anyone, and his leadership in building awareness about TB has been essential.

The other survivors included Deepti Chavan, who fought multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) for six years and now serves as an advocate for patients and survivors.  She was joined by Kiran Tailwal, who had to depend on the kindness of a stranger to get the nutrition she needed to get well.  Also, there was Lalita Shankar, a public health specialist who couldn’t imagine getting TB, until the disease spread to her bones.  And Blessi Kumar, who struggled to get an accurate TB diagnosis and now works across the globe to make sure other patients don’t have to face the same challenge.

Their testimonies were a powerful reminder of why the fight to end TB in India is so important, and why we must all work together to reach every person infected with TB, help cure them through timely treatment, and prevent new TB infections.

These past few months have seen significant strides forward in our partnership with the Government of India to champion a TB-free India. Agencies at the U.S. Embassy have been busy: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supporting groundbreaking research to help us better understand the basic biology of TB and find new ways to tackle it; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are working to identify and test new ways to diagnose and more effectively treat drug-resistant TB; and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently increased its support to end TB by signing three new awards to test and scale innovative solutions that will help TB patients among under- or inadequately-served populations in India. USAID, the Department for International Development (DFID), and IKP Knowledge Park Hyderabad are also working to take India’s successes and proven technologies and put them to work in other high-burden countries over the next few years.   But the burden of TB still looms large, in India and across the globe.  TB has caused more deaths than any other single infectious disease worldwide, killing more than 1.5 million people each year. In India, almost 220,000 people die from TB a year, and the disease continues to push entire families and many communities into poverty and suffering.

So as we approach World TB Day, I ask: What’s next? What will help take all of our efforts to the next level?

As two of the world’s leading democracies, India and the U.S. are natural partners with a long history of collaboration on TB prevention, control, and research.  The challenge now is to continue to expand that partnership and deepen our cooperation even further. To do so we must push for continued innovation and novel approaches to TB diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.  Working together, we can reach out to stakeholders from all corners and form a united front against TB, a disease we know is curable.

But most importantly, we must continue to remember the survivors, whose stories will guide our way forward. We will continue to design interventions and outreach campaigns that recognize each patient as an integral part of the solution.  We need to encourage healthcare providers to adopt and implement best practices for the prevention, detection and treatment of TB and we need to raise awareness and change attitudes about TB, so that patients seek treatment as soon as possible.  With patients like Deepti, Lalita, Kiran, Blessi, and Mr. Bachchan in mind, we’ll not only know where to focus our efforts, but where to find inspiration on the road ahead.

So on the eve of World TB Day, I would like to commend the Government of India and its many partners for their bold commitment to end TB in India. TB anywhere is TB everywhere –and every breakthrough India achieves in the fight against TB is a breakthrough for the world. It’s easy to see those successes and future challenges in terms of numbers.  But I urge everyone today to also think of the very real stories we heard earlier this month, and the thousands of other stories throughout India—of hope and tenacity, of suffering and heartbreak, of dedication and spirit.  These stories have the power to transform the way we approach the fight to end TB in India, and remind us that we can win it by working together.