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World Leaders Pledge To Eradicate Tuberculosis


This week, in New York City for the first time, the United Nations General Assembly is hosting a high-level meeting on tuberculosis, or TB.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: By the end of today, nearly 4,400 people will have lost their lives to TB, including more than 600 children.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He's the head of the World Health Organization. TB is the deadliest infectious disease on the planet, killing about 1 1/2 million people every year. But now, as NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, world leaders have pledged to end the global epidemic by 2030.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: TB is an ancient disease. It's been with us for thousands and thousands of years. Even though there's been a cure since the 1940s, each year, it still kills more people than AIDS, more people than car accidents.


GHEBREYESUS: Enough is enough. It's time to end TB.

DOUCLEFF: Dr. Tedros and health officials say, one of the big obstacles is that TB strikes the poorest people in the world who can't afford or don't have access to drugs. So world leaders have made an ambitious pledge to treat 40 million people in the next five years and, by 2030, cut TB deaths by 90 percent.


GHEBREYESUS: These are bold promises.

DOUCLEFF: So could a big meeting like this, big promises like these, actually make a dent in the fight against a disease that's been neglected for decades? Dr. Paul Farmer at the nonprofit Partners in Health says maybe.

PAUL FARMER: I have to say that I have been a skeptic about the relevance of yet another meeting about a problem that really hasn't been addressed ever.

DOUCLEFF: Farmer says he felt that way about a similar U.N. meeting back in the early naughts focused on AIDS. But then that meeting had a big impact.

FARMER: That ended up being radically life-altering.

DOUCLEFF: It ultimately led to the launch of one of the most successful anti-HIV programs ever, the U.S. program PEPFAR, or the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. And the global fight against AIDS received a huge infusion of money. Farmer is hopeful that this U.N. meeting could do the same thing for TB because right now he spends a huge amount of his time doing one thing - begging.

FARMER: Begging for money, begging for social support for patients - it involves a lot of begging.

DOUCLEFF: Currently health officials say, for the new U.N. plan to work, they need about $5 billion more each year. Farmer says he was just in Sierra Leone where he met a young man named Moses (ph) who was fighting for his life. Doctors didn't know why.

FARMER: I said, I think this is TB that's killing him.

DOUCLEFF: And then the hospital was struggling to get Moses drugs and the care he needs to survive.

FARMER: It shouldn't be that hard for my colleagues in Sierra Leone to find the resources necessary to diagnose a young man like that and bring him the cure.

DOUCLEFF: Hopefully in a few years, Farmer says, it won't be as hard if leaders of the world keep their promise. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENKY'S "BONFIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.