At the end of 50 years of tuberculosis control activities, the disease remains a major health challenge in India. As per new estimates, the number of new cases every year has risen to 2.8 million and mortality is put at 4,80,000 each year. These figures may go up when the national TB prevalence survey is undertaken in 2017-18. Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in its national strategic plan for tuberculosis elimination (2017-2025), has set a highly ambitious goal of “achieving a rapid decline in burden of TB, morbidity and mortality while working towards elimination of TB by 2025.”
Though the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP) has treated 10 million patients, the rate of decline has been slow. Providing universal access to early diagnosis and treatment and improving case detection were the main goals of the national strategic plan 2012-17. But the RNTCP failed on both counts, as the Joint Monitoring Mission report of 2015 pointed out. Going by the current rate of decline, India is far from reaching the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals — reducing the number of deaths by 90% and TB incidence by 80% compared with 2015. Yet, the latest report for TB elimination calls for reducing TB incidence from 217 per 1,00,000 in 2015 to 142 by 2020 and 44 by 2025 and reduce mortality from 32 to 15 by 2020 and 3 per 1,00,000 by 2025.
Incidentally, nearly 50% of people in India are latently infected with TB. According to CDC, 5-10% of infected people will develop TB disease at some time in their lives. “About half of those people who develop TB will do so within the first two years of infection,” the CDC says. With the latently infected people acting as a reservoir, it will be nearly impossible to eliminate TB in India by 2025.
Radical approaches are needed to come anywhere close to reaching these ambitious targets. Most importantly, the TB control programme plans to do away with the strategy of waiting for patients to walk in to get tested and instead engage in detecting more cases, both drug-sensitive and drug-resistant. The emphasis will be on using highly sensitive diagnostic tests, undertaking universal testing for drug-resistant TB, reaching out to TB patients seeking care from private doctors and targeting people belonging to high-risk populations.
The other priority is to provide anti-TB treatment — irrespective of where patients seek care from, public or private — and ensure that they complete the treatment. For the first time, the TB control programme talks of having in place patient-friendly systems to provide treatment and social support. It seeks to make the daily regimen universal; currently, the thrice weekly regimen is followed by RNTCP, and the daily regimen has been introduced only in five States. There will be a rapid scale-up of short-course regimens for drug-resistant TB and drug sensitivity testing-guided treatment. In 2013, India “achieved complete geographical coverage” for MDR-TB (multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis) diagnosis and treatment. Yet, only 93,000 people with MDR-TB had been diagnosed and put on treatment till 2015; several MDR-TB cases are simply not diagnosed.
Though Bedaquiline, the drug for people who do not respond to any anti-TB medicine, is provided in six sites in the country, the number of beneficiaries is very small. It has been a battle to get the drug for treatment, as in the case of an 18-year-old who had to approach the Supreme Court for help. Yet, the report envisages a countrywide scale-up of Bedaquiline and Delamanid.
In a marked departure, the report underscores the need to prevent the emergence of TB in susceptible populations. One such segment is those in contact with a recently diagnosed pulmonary TB. Incidentally, active-case finding is already a part of the RNTCP programme but rarely implemented. It wants to increase active case finding to 100% by 2020. Since RNTCP expenditure has increased by 27% since 2012 and is inadequately funded, the Ministry proposes to increase funding to ₹16,500 crore.
Acknowledging that the business-as-usual approach will not get the Health Ministry anywhere close to the goals, it has earmarked critical components that will be addressed on priority. These include sending customised SMSes to improve drug compliance, incentivising private doctors to notify cases and providing free medicines to patients approaching the private sector, facilitating nutritional support to TB patients, including financial support, rewarding States performing well in controlling TB, and using management information systems to monitor all aspects of TB control. “The ultimate impact of this national strategic plan will be transformational improvements in the end TB efforts of India,” the report says. It plans to take a “detect-treat-prevent-build approach” in its war against TB.