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The Second Epidemic: Advocating for Tuberculosis Research and Development

Rebecca Neill grew up in Mount Holly, New Jersey. At Princeton, she majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy because she was interested in large-scale biological principles and thinking about the health of populations. Here Rebecca shares her experience so far as a Project 55 fellow in External Affairs at Aeras in Washington, D.C. 

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Rebecca’s visit to the Capitol building, standing with a statue that belongs to her home state, New Jersey.

A couple of weeks ago, the Advocacy Manager in my office arranged for me to be invited on a tour of the Capitol building with a staff member of one of the congressional offices. I’d never been before, but he’s been dozens of times– one of Aeras’s primary functions is advocating for funding for tuberculosis (TB) vaccine research and development with the U.S. government, or “on the Hill” (just to use a little of the local language). Aeras and many scientists believe that the TB epidemic cannot be stopped without a new, more effective vaccine. Unfortunately, there is strikingly little funding for TB research, and vaccine development makes up a tiny piece of that pie.

Tuberculosis is a huge problem. How huge? In 2015, 10.4 million people got TB– that’s the entire population of Portugal. A whole country worth of people is newly infected every year. And, in 2015, 1.8 million people died from TB. One article recently called multiple drug-resistant TB “Ebola with wings” because of its severity and difficulty to treat. These numbers make a staggering and urgent case for the world to focus on TB prevention and control. The question, then, is why is TB funding such a low priority for the U.S. government?

The answer is that most people in the U.S. don’t really know anything about TB because there are relatively few cases, and those cases are generally treated successfully. However, in countries with poorer health infrastructures, TB spreads more rapidly and is much more difficult to treat. And, if patients don’t complete full treatment, which can take up to six months for a typical infection, they risk developing multiple drug-resistant TB or even extensively drug-resistant TB, which are much more difficult to treat and have much higher mortality rates. Part of Aeras’s job is to make sure that the people in charge of making the government’s funding decisions for global health are aware of the full extent of the TB epidemic. We want them to advocate with us.

All of these advocacy efforts translate into a lot of work for my department, External Affairs. We create specific flyers and fact sheets for different domestic and international regions. We hold events and meetings and sometimes even conferences to spread information. I maintain several social media channels (check us out on Facebook and Twitter!) to keep @AerasGlobalTB and its followers up-to-date with TB news around the world.

Tuberculosis as a disease is the first epidemic. The second epidemic is how few resources we’re allocating to stop it. I’m grateful for this opportunity to learn more and work towards solving such a significant global health concern.

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