| SBS News
PNG has already seen the emergence and spread of highly-drug resistant TB strains
SYDNEY - While all eyes are on the Covid-19 crisis, one of the world's deadliest diseases continues to haunt the Pacific.
Tuberculosis, or TB, is a highly-contagious airborne bacterial infection that attacks the lungs.
It killed 1.5 million people last year - more than any other infectious disease except for Covid – in what has been called the 'silent' or 'hidden' epidemic.
"A lot of focus has gone to Covid, and funding has gone to Covid, and diseases such as tuberculosis have been left behind," said Dr Hemant Bogati, who works on tuberculosis control for Doctors Without Borders in Papua New Guinea.
Tuberculosis is typically treated with a cocktail of antibiotics that must be taken daily for nine months or longer.
But drug-resistant strains that are much harder to treat are starting to emerge in Papua New Guinea.
"As of 2016 there were about 2,000 new cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the country, and it's slowly increasing," Dr Bogati said.
"Globally, drug-resistant TB patients have a treatment success of less than 50%, and the cost of treatment is 100 times higher."
Helem Waenesai, a member of World Vision's TB control program in Port Moresby said a key challenge was spreading awareness amongst communities.
"We are mobilising the community to know what TB is, and how we can help in treating and curing it," she told SBS News.
According to World Vision, some 3,000 people die from TB in PNG each year.
The Marshall Islands in the Pacific have the eighth highest TB incidence in the world, with 4.5 cases per 1,000 people.
PNG has the 10th highest incidence, with 4.4 cases per 1,000 people..
By comparison Australia has an incidence of just 0.7 cases per 1,000.
Tuberculosis thrives in crowded areas and Daru Island in PNG’s Western Province has seen many cases, including of the multi-drug resistant variety.
Worldwide, the Covid pandemic has had a major impact on tuberculosis control efforts.
For the first time since 2005, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of people dying from TB.
"We still have to uncover the full impact of Covid on global tuberculosis rates,” said Professor Ben Marais, an infectious disease expert.
“We know that TB was the number one infectious disease killer before Covid arrived, and that TB hasn't gone away.”
"Provisional data suggests there is not only a dramatic increase in TB cases, but also in TB deaths.
"TB control efforts will be put back by 10 to 20 years."
While drug-resistant TB was not yet a widespread problem in most of the Pacific, Prof Marais said it was crucial to remain vigilant.
"In PNG already we have seen the emergence and spread of highly-drug resistant TB strains.
"The same can happen in other Pacific locations.
“That would be a catastrophe for TB control, because these countries are not prepared for the added sophistication required in the management of people with drug-resistant tuberculosis."