Transcript of WHO podcast - 19 March 2007
Meningitis in Africa; positive news on TB epidemic; water scarcity particularly affects women and children
Iain Simpson: You are listening to the WHO podcast for the week of 19 March 2007. I am Iain Simpson.
In this episode:
- meningitis in Africa, more vaccine urgently needed as the death toll rises;
- positive news on tuberculosis (TB), but HIV and drug-resistance are obstacles for further progress; and
- on World Water Day, WHO calls for more focus on the impact of water scarcity on women and girls.
Meningitis is a bacterial disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It is most common in an area of north and central Africa stretching from Senegal in the west and to Ethiopia in the east. It has become known as the "meningitis belt". Just two months into this year's dry season 18 000 cases have already been reported. At least 1800 people have died as a result. The number of cases has been particularly high in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Uganda. William Perea is a WHO expert on meningitis who was recently working to control the outbreak in southern Sudan. He told us his most pressing concerns.
William Perea: Definitely, the limited vaccine supply is number one. Number two is the funding gap in Burkina Faso. We need to solve these as quickly as possible because, if not, the epidemic will affect many lives. And third, this is on a more long-term basis, is the need of increasing the vaccine supply to face epidemics in the years to come.
Iain Simpson: March 24 is World TB Day and WHO marks the occasion with an annual report on the global epidemic. This year, there is positive news. The epidemic appears to be levelling off for the first time since WHO declared TB as a public health emergency in 1993. The new numbers show that the percentage of the world's population infected with TB peaked in 2004 and then held steady in 2005. But the news is not all good as the Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said at a press conference in Geneva [Switzerland].
Dr Margaret Chan: I would like to say a word of caution. There are three challenges ahead that we should really pay special attention to, otherwise they could threaten the progress we are announcing today. The first one is co-infection of HIV and TB. The second challenge is drug-resistance and, in particular, the recent emergence of extensively drug-resistant TB, what is known as XDR-TB. The third challenge I would like to bring to your attention is the ageing of the global population. So, all in all, my message this morning is that there is some positive news on TB control, but there are also serious challenges to the progress we have made. We need to redouble our efforts if we were to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Iain Simpson: The former president of Portugal, Dr Jorge Sampaio, is the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Stop Tuberculosis. During a recent visit to Geneva, he discussed his role and his commitment to fighting this disease with the Italian writer and UN Messenger of Peace Anna Cataldi. She started by asking him why he thought there was so much ignorance around a disease that kills so many people.
Dr Jorge Sampaio: People think that TB is no longer there. So the fact that TB obviously has to do with, it's as one calls it, an illness of the poor. But normally, it can happen also with rich people or well-established middle class citizens.
Anna Cataldi: Yes, because also, it is airborne, contagious airborne. One can sit in first-class on an airplane and get TB.
Dr Jorge Sampaio: Yes, there you are. So, the developments of TB I was not totally familiar with and so this is why I think that I have noticed in several countries, especially also in mine, that when you speak about TB people think it's finished, it's no longer there. No, it's there. You can be touched by TB. So this is a new awareness coming in. The second, of course, is that there are high burden countries which obviously in which this plight is dramatic and as you were saying the connection between the TB and HIV is becoming more and more intense. There are countries in the world where even people with anti-retrovirals, which obviously prolong their life to stages which they thought were not possible, they get TB and they die because of TB. So that raises a few serious public health problems and serious stigma problems, etc, etc. And thirdly, the new developments of resistant TB, whether the multiple resistance or even the new strain that is even worse than multiple resistance, is obviously going to raise the possibility of a new pandemic with new developments, and therefore much more difficult to tackle. My approach has always been that people have to work together.
Iain Simpson: To hear Ana Cataldi's interview with Dr Jorge Sampaio in full and to find out more about the TB epidemic and World TB Day events, please go to www.who.int/tb.
Finally, the theme of World Water Day this year is water scarcity. Scarcity of water has a direct impact on human health. Every year 1.6 million people die because they lack access to safe water and sanitation. Most of the deaths, some 90%, occur among children under 5, almost all of them in developing countries. In a statement to mark World Water Day, WHO called particular attention to the millions of women who have to walk great distances every day to fetch water. In addition to the heavy physical burden, they are at risk of being physically assaulted as they seek water. Girls miss school to carry their loads of water. WHO says more attention must be paid to the needs of women when managing water.
Thanks for listening to this WHO podcast. For the latest public health news and more information about our work, visit the WHO website at www.who.int.