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Tuberculosis Cannot Be Silenced By Political Borders

24/03/2016 5:28 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Barcroft Media via Getty Images
SURAKARTA, INDONESIA - MARCH 22: Activists hold banners during a rally marking the World Tuberculosis Day on March 22, 2015 in Surakarta, Indonesia. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is the second most deadly disease in the world after HIV / AIDS. These bacterias spread through water particles in the air that move because of cough, sneeze, or spit. PHOTOGRAPH BY Solo Imaji / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Solo Imaji / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Imagine being accepted into medical school with the dream of studying medicine to change people's lives, only to leave as a patient.

Imagine being a vibrant, energetic young woman ready to take on the world, only to have yours shattered by the discovery of a lump growing on your neck.

Sadly, there's no imagination or creativity at play for Lusiani 'Lusi' Aprilawati as she reveals her harrowing but inspirational story. Lusi could no longer ignore her declining health and symptoms, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) at just 26 years of age. From there, her world spiralled into a blur of terror -- from being asked publicly by a lecturer at medical school how she contracted the illness, to sweating so profusely she became incredibly self-conscious in public, to being left with the mental images of the yellow discolouration left on her bed sheets night after night.

Soon enough, Lusi left medical school and, while her dream of pursuing medicine may have crumbled, her resolve to help others remained. Today, Lusi is an Indonesian TB survivor and activist working to shift policy and drive the type of change she knows will assist others with TB. Her passion was evident as she addressed members of the Australian Parliament last week.

As a fellow TB advocate working for decades to assist in highlighting issues surrounding TB, Lusi's story is one of many sad tales and experiences I've heard. Just last week, RESULTS Australia hosted an event at Parliament House to launch the Australian TB Caucus. In a heartening cross-party move, over 80 Parliamentarians signed up to join the Caucus. After all, TB is not an illness that can be silenced by political borders, nor is it a problem for developing countries to tackle without the support of countries such as Australia.

What still amazes me (and not in a good way) is that so many people know so little about an illness that poses such a deadly threat and ranks alongside HIV as the world's deadliest infectious disease, killing an estimated 1.5 million people each year (60 percent of them in our region). In fact, most Australians think TB has been eradicated when in truth it's raging in our own backyard and having a major impact in both Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Alarmingly, around one third of the world's population has latent TB, meaning they're infected but not yet ill with the disease or capable of transmitting it. TB is caused by bacteria (mycobacterium tuberculosis) that commonly affect the lungs. It is both curable and preventable, and is spread throughout the air from person to person. Whenever someone with TB coughs, sneezes or spits, they unintentionally send their germs into the air. From here, one must inhale only a few of these germs to become infected.

To complicate matters further, multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB), commonly called 'ebola with wings' by experts, is a growing health threat serving to increase the cost, complexity and length of treatment. Globally, 3.3 percent of new TB cases are diagnosed as MDR-TB with the majority of cases surfacing in Asia. Of particular concern to Australia is the migration of the disease in the neighbouring PNG region, leading experts to express concern about a direct risk to Australia's health security. Our trade, business and tourism ties with neighbouring countries are cause for particular alarm.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set a target to rid the world of TB by 2035. And while this is an ambitious target, thanks to the great work of organisations such as The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, this goal is achievable.

The Global Fund is the largest source of international funding for tuberculosis and malaria. Thanks to its work, 8.2 million people have received treatment in the Indo-Pacific since 2002. In other words, it has been the real game changer in enabling TB sufferers such as Lusi to access free treatment, advanced diagnostics and lab facilities, in turn strengthening overall health systems. Later this year, the Global Fund will be seeking further commitment for the 2017 to 2019 period at its 2016 replenishment meeting. It's time for Australia to lead the way in terms of TB prevention and treatment by pledging a commitment of $300 million to the Global Fund as part of an overall increase to the Australian Aid budget.

Why is Australia's pledge so important? Firstly, investing in the Global Fund represents an excellent return on investment. For every dollar contributed through Australian aid the Global Fund spends $20 dollars fighting these epidemics in our region. Of course, our country's health security is a factor. But, most importantly, people such as Lusi depend on Australia's commitment. After all, access to healthcare shouldn't depend on where you were lucky enough to be born and raised.

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