Children are back in school, MPs are back in Ottawa, and United Nations member states are preparing to set the agenda for the upcoming year at the UN General Assembly in New York. Just as teachers are needed to educate the next generation, a meaningful UN gathering needs the highest levels of leadership to attend—heads of state and government, including Justin Trudeau. This will be more evident than ever on Sept. 26 during the UN High-Level Meeting on Ending Tuberculosis.
This is the first meeting at this level addressing tuberculosis (TB)—an acknowledgement of the severity of the disease and our stagnant global progress against it. TB is curable and preventable, but is now the world’s top infectious killer, causing more deaths than HIV and malaria combined. The world has neglected it for too long, leaving the tools we have to fight this ancient bacterium outdated, toxic, and burdensome.
As the former deputy shadow minister for health, I’m familiar with the numbers and statistics of TB in Canada, particularly within our Indigenous communities. But as I sat with a family severely affected by TB in Nairobi, Kenya, I was shaken by the sheer geographical scope of this disease. Behind the numbers and statistics are real people who are dying for no reason other than neglect. As a mother, I was struck at how this small bacterial infection resting in a father’s lungs wreaked havoc on the whole family. The father was unable to work while seeking treatment. Until he recovers, they are a single-income family. The mother continued to run the household, hold down a job, and care for her young daughter. For months, she patiently encouraged him to continue to take the drugs and work through the often debilitating side effects. Just a few more months of treatment and he should be clear of the disease, but it’s a challenge. Personally, I struggle to get through a 10-day regimen of doctor-prescribed antibiotics; I can’t imagine doing it for over six months.
Programs like TB Reach, which Canada has been supporting since 2010, were instrumental in ensuring this Kenyan family, and families and patients around the world, are reached with treatment. This disease is complex, and truly global. Tackling it will require more of what I saw in Kenya, with support and co-ordination from government, doctors, health-care workers, affected families, and non-governmental organizations. But if it takes a community to save one father’s life, it must take the world to save the millions suffering now.
The price we are paying for this disease is not just in lives lost, though, with someone dying from TB every 18 seconds, those are in the millions. There are long-term global economic costs that are often overlooked.
Research estimates that TB deaths alone will cost the global economy $1-trillion over the next 15 years, not to mention the greater economic and social impacts on families and health systems. This month’s UN high-level meeting is a call to world leaders to take immediate action on ending TB. If Canada intends to be a leader on the global stage, it must take TB, and the meeting seriously.
I stand with Canadian civil society organizations and TB experts across Canada and their letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to attend this meeting. Former Conservative governments have a long history of supporting the global fight against TB and this is something on which Canada should continue to show leadership. I urge the prime minister to attend this meeting. It is not just an opportunity, but a necessity.