Louder voices and more demand for new tools against tuberculosis (TB) from people and communities are needed to push the fight against the airborne disease.
These were the common demands of the participants of the 41st Union World Conference on Lung Health in Berlin, Germany last November 11-15.
“Governments don’t support TB research and development enough. We have to empower communities with more knowledge on TB issues to move governments to do something,” said Lucy Ghati
Ghati is a Community Representative to the Stop TB Partnership’s Working Group on New TB Vaccines and Program Officer of the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Kenya.
According to Ghati that without being pushed governments won’t do anything. But there is a need for new commodities to address TB and HIV like new diagnostics and better drugs. But if one wants to have a long term solution, new vaccines will solve this pandemic illness.
The current diagnostics, drugs and vaccine against TB are outdated and not efficient enough. Peg Willingham, Senior Director External Affairs at the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation, presented the example of TB vaccines in a separate media meeting held to brief journalists on key issues on the conference agenda.
The only currently available vaccine against TB is BCG. It is partly effective against severe forms of childhood TB but fails to prevent the most prevalent form like pulmonary tuberculosis in adults. Researchers around the world are working to develop new, more effective and safe vaccines. A vaccine that will be affordable and available worldwide.
“It is important that the community is involved in the research. Therefore, our clinical trial research partners in the countries where we test new vaccines do a lot of community outreach,” Willingham explained.
In an interview with CNS, Willingham cited different ways to engage and inform people such as through radio programs, outreach to schools and comic books.
It is also essential to consider the perspectives of the decision makers at national levels who will play the leadership role in rolling out future new vaccines.
“We want to make sure that what we are doing is what countries want,” Willingham said.
Willingham stressed that Aeras works to involve communities at all levels of society as demonstrated by a recent market study done among national-level decision makers in high TB burden countries. The study which is still in preliminary form showed that TB is considered a significant health problem that does not get the attention it deserves.
“It would be a kind of a virtuous circle if people from the community said new vaccines are something they want,” said Willingham.
Willingham explained community engagement helps build demand for vaccine research and development. It also fosters clinical trial recruitment. Local involvement and demand is essential to building government support for research.
An added challenge to building demand for vaccines is that prevention is often overlooked. As Willingham explained, vaccines administered in childhood that have worked in preventing illness are quickly forgotten. The cause and effect relationship of vaccines and the disease they prevent are not immediate as with medication that quickly provides relief.
Stigma surrounding people with TB and the lack of advocates willing to add their voices to public calls for new TB vaccines also contributef to the lack of awareness about the inadequacies of BCG and the need to improve or replace it.
“People are always surprised to hear still two million people die of TB every year,” Willingham added.
According to Willingham that more people need to tell their personal stories to inspire TB patients to seek medical attention. There is a need to figure out a way to reduce that stigma. One is to figure out how to get people to feel safe and be brave enough to speak up because otherwise people will keep dying quietly behind closed doors. Thus, they will never get any better.
Joris Vandeputte, Senior vice president advocacy and resource mobilization at TuBerculosis Vaccine Initiative (TBVI) reaffirmed also the need to deal with stigma at the TB vaccines press briefing.
Vandeputted highlighted that stigma has consequences for advocacy efforts and resource mobilization for TB as well. There are currently 12 vaccine candidates ready to be translated into vaccines that are globally accessible as well as promising diagnostics and treatment avenues. Researchers should work hard to translate these into products ready to be used in the field. For vaccine candidates to be translated, financial resources must be multiplied by 3 to 4 compared with the present effort. To overcome this huge challenge, the researchers will have to be innovative.