With so much attention on COVID-19, the much older tuberculosis (TB) pandemic is going largely unnoticed. It isn’t as significant a problem as it was in the past, but TB still kills 1.5 million people a year (it infects an estimated 10 million each year). It is primarily a problem in warmer locations, but resurges in colder regions periodically. New York City saw a spike in cases during the end of the 20th century. It remains a problem among homeless populations, regardless of location. The World Health Organization (WHO) developed a strategy to end this very old pandemic, but we have fallen well behind the timeline. The goal was to have reduced new cases by at least 20% and deaths by 35% by 2020.
Medical professionals see malnutrition as one of the primary risks that has not been reduced. When a person is undernourished, their immune system is compromised. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the problem as it has created severe economic stress that means families in economically precarious situations are less able to get necessities, including adequate amounts of food. Modeling has shown that increasing the body mass index of a malnourished individual reduces their risk of contracting the illness by 50%. There is currently a new TB vaccine that is showing promise, but the increase in body mass index reduces the risk as much as the vaccine, and has a number of other positive benefits.
Socioeconomic conditions have proven to be a critical spreader of TB as many developed nations have seen significant reductions in the illness as the populations are better cared for. Since it disproportionately affects a specific part of the population, TB has been called a social disease. Researchers have been working to create screening and treatments for the populations that are at greatest risk of contracting the disease. Part of the problem with mitigating the risk factors is that it has a political aspect. Many nations have food programs for pregnant women and children, but not for other adults. This leaves adults at a greater risk of contracting TB. COVID-19 has helped to spotlight the problems with TB, especially as it has helped to create a more vulnerable population across the world with the economic depression.
For more details about the illness that has plagued humanity for centuries and the work being done to end it, check out Meals as Medicine: Feed the Hungry to Treat the Tuberculosis Pandemic.