The 7th South African Tuberculosis Conference in Durban opened on Tuesday amid the withdrawal of key health stakeholders from this year’s meeting.

According to the chairman of the conference, Professor Willem Hanekam, the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the international organization FIND refused to participate in the conference. It follows allegations that one of the main sponsors of the conference previously accepted money to conduct a study of the tobacco industry.

Although TB ​​is preventable and curable, it remains one of the most highly infectious diseases in the world.

The conference began with conspicuous empty chairs. The allegations surfaced days before the event, leading to tension, confusion and the untimely withdrawal of some delegates.

The issue centers around one of the conference’s main sponsors, who allegedly previously accepted money in 2021 for tobacco industry research. The move, according to the conference, could have potentially derailed this year’s event.

“About 12 days ago, we heard from the WHO speaker that he can no longer attend because the organizers of the conference are funded by the tobacco industry. It turned out that FBD received a small amount of funding to conduct a study on the interaction of cigarette smoking and COVID-19 from a foundation called the foundation of a smoke-free world. In short, it turns out that this foundation is a front for the tobacco industry,” explains the Executive Director of the Africa Health Research Institute, Professor Willem Hankeom.

Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has put TB treatment on the back burner. Reduced access to TB diagnosis and treatment has led to increased TB mortality and a marked increase in infections worldwide. More than 25,000 people die each year from tuberculosis in South Africa.

Some civil society organizations are calling for a greater collective approach by organizations in combating the prevalence of tuberculosis in communities as opposed to individual work.

“TB is everyone’s problem, so much more can be done if we work together rather than separately,” says Steve Letzike of the National Civil Society Forum SANAC.

South Africa is one of the 30 countries with a high burden of TB at number 8. India tops the list. Together, these countries account for a whopping eighty-six percent of new TB cases worldwide.

Hanekom went on to say that the tobacco industry is using the framework to gain legitimacy in the scientific world. He urged the delegates to focus on science and interaction with society.

“Over 300,000 cases of TB are diagnosed in South Africa each year and 25,000 people die from TB in South Africa each year. During covid, the number of deaths from tuberculosis has increased in the rest of the world. This came after a steady decline, so we’re basically in trouble. we need to take stock of what’s going to happen here.”

VIDEO: Deputy Health Minister Dr Sibongiseni Dloma speaks at the 7th SA TB Conference

The National Department of Health has announced that it has drafted a bill to control tobacco products and electronic delivery systems. Deputy Health Minister Dr. Sibongiseni Dloma says they hope the bill, if passed, will help reduce TB infections.

“As soon as this bill is passed, it will go to parliament. This will take root now that NHI is there. we hope that once they are done with this bill, they will focus on the fight against tobacco. We hope that they will deal with this bill, which we want to have.”

Scientists have raised concerns about the lack of investment in diagnostics, particularly to shorten the time between testing and treatment.

In South Africa, this can take up to five days and requires the patient to physically return to the clinic for results.

Dr. Harry Moultrie of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases spoke about the progress India has made in reducing the number of TB infections by reinstating diagnosis with testing for COVID-19 over the past two years.

The four-day conference will bring together more than 1,500 delegates made up of politicians, academics, civil society groups and health professionals to develop strategic ways to fight TB. -Additional reporting by Minoshni Pillay and Nonjabula Mntungwa-Makamu

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