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A glimmer of light amid the darkness: united to fight a global threat

By Elena Vargas
on February 3, 2017

Two weeks of Trump’s presidency have passed, and many of us Americans—proud inhabitants of the continent consisting of 35 sovereign states including the United States of America, the República Federativa do Brasil and the Estados Unidos Mexicanos—are watching his reign of intolerance and hatred unfold with fear and disbelief. And while I’m not a fan of Mexican beer at all (a trip to Belgium can turn you into a beer snob), I have to agree with Corona’s advert which sees the greatness of the Americas in the (quiet) attempts to build bridges, not walls; in unifying us all in our diversity.

And yet, even fear and shock can ignite a fire of hope and sense of agency. Take tuberculosis: the re-emergence of TB as top-ten global killer led to combined efforts of nations across the continent to curb the disease.

The latest Global Tuberculosis Report counted 10.4 million new cases and 1.4 million TB deaths in 2015 (global figures), with 0.4 million deaths resulting from TB among people living with HIV. Over 95% of cases and deaths happen in developing countries, many of which also suffer from weak health systems and adverse social determinants of health. To compound matters, TB has a complex cause-effect relationship with poverty, marginalization and discrimination. In the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) estimates  there were approximately 23,000 deaths due to the disease in 2014, 280,000 cases reported and an estimated 65,000 cases undiagnosed.

In November 2016, Mexico City hosted a 3-day workshop on ‘Political TB Advocacy for Focal Agencies of the TB Parliamentary Front against TB in the Americas’. The aim was to consolidate and officially launch the TB Coalition of the Americas, which includes the vast majority of countries in the region, including Canada and the United States. We hope the US commitment and participation will not be compromised by the major policy changes happening in “TrumpLand” today.

Prior to this workshop, a  Regional Parliamentary Front against TB in the Americas was created in early 2016, which brought together parliament members from Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay and Nicaragua. One of its main goals is to work alongside governments and civil society to ensure the allocation of enough funds to finance cost-effective interventions to halt the spread of TB. The Regional Parliamentary Front is committed to establish national parliamentary groups that will demand  accountability, monitor expenditure and joint work of the governments with civil society organizations or focal agencies in each country. These interventions include those beyond the health sector, ensuring financial and social protection that are necessary to prevent TB as a poverty-related illness. Groups will be in charge of positioning TB as a transversal topic across national policies, promoting human rights of those affected by the disease and informing the ministries (annually) about the advances and/or setbacks in the fight against the epidemic.

The Belgian NGO Damien Foundation is one of the focal agencies working on this issue in Nicaragua and Guatemala. The NGO provides technical support to the TB Control National Programs in these two countries. In Nicaragua the Foundation plays a key role in strengthening the community network to take measures against TB.

These efforts could not come at better moment given that the United Nations General Assembly has announced that it will hold a high-level meeting dedicated solely to TB in 2018. Similar meetings have  taken place to address other major global health issues over the last decade and a half, respectively on HIV/AIDS in 2001, NCDs in 2011, the Ebola crisis in 2014 and the antimicrobial resistance threat in 2015. Moreover, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has just launched the world’s first TB and Migration Portal: The Knowledge Platform on Tuberculosis and Migration.

It may seem like “many small people, in small places, doing small things that can change the world”, in Eduardo Galeano’s words, but we are also building the much needed resilience and taking action to demonstrate the real greatness of America, the Americas, plural.

Post scriptum: Before you get blinded by the light, I recognize that we still have some darkness too. As the Guttmacher Institute reminded us nearly a year ago, more than 97% of women of childbearing age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries where abortion is restricted or banned altogether. And that was before the Global Gag Rule…


Community health workers planning intervenyions to takle TB in their communities. Nindirí, Masaya, Nicaragua.

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