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Tackling TB and HIV in Women

March 22, 2019 3 minute Read
By Rayan Toliver, Women’s Initiative Intern at the Bush Institute
On World TB Day, we must commit to addressing the dual burden of tuberculosis and HIV affecting hundreds of thousands of women around the world.

Tuberculosis (TB) is an airborne infectious disease caused by bacteria transmitted through coughing, sneezing, or talking. If untreated, a person with active TB infects an estimated 10-15 people per year. TB can affect many organs of the bodybut those with TB in the lungs pose the greatest health threat to others. Common symptoms of TB are coughs with blood, chest pains, fever and night sweats. TB is both preventable and treatable, yet still the disease remains a modern-day threat.   

TB is the leading infectious cause of death in women worldwide, and the third leading cause of death among women ages 15-44, killing 480,000 women every year. It is also the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age in developing countries, accounting for more deaths than maternal mortality.

TB is further complicated by the HIV epidemic. HIV weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of TB in people living with HIV. When someone has both HIV and TB, each disease speeds up the progress of the other. It is estimated that 1.1 million people are living co-infected, with around 85 percent of HIV-associated TB deaths among women in Africa alone.

Although numbers of HIV-associated TB deaths among men and women are similar globally, more deaths occur among women than men in Sub-Saharan African. The stigma surrounding TB and perceptions about the co-infection between TB and HIV have limited women’s access to proper treatment. The women who do get diagnosed often get treated during later stages of the disease, which can severely limit the chances for successful treatment and increase the risk of transmission to others.

Yet, global donors, national health systems, and community groups have not prioritized this dual burden in women, including the gender-related barriers to detection and treatment. Cultural and financial challenges act as major obstacles for women seeking care, resulting in delayed presentation and more severe illness.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between the status of women’s health in a country and that country’s overall economic health. Poor health creates barriers that reduce women’s ability to obtain work, education, and financial independence. The dual epidemic of TB and HIV is preventing women from reaching their full potential.

While the World Health Assembly has developed HIV/TB-related policy recommendations, it is up to member states to implement these recommendations. Women are bearing an unequal portion of the burden of this disease, and the global community’s response should reflect this by focusing on women-specific services for HIV-TB care.

Policies, followed by action, have the potential to influence women’s exposure to TB and other infectious disease, define standards and access to care, and curb consequences of ill health in women and girls. We must ensure this dual burden does not continue. It is unacceptable for women to continue to suffer from these preventable diseases.