The COVID-19 pandemic, which hindered access to diagnosis and treatment, caused a spike in tuberculosis cases last year for the first time in more than 20 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday (Oct 27). After years of decline, TB has returned, killing a projected 1.6 million people in 2021, an increase of 14% in just two years.

The world's leading infectious killer, COVID-19, overtook TB at the worst of the epidemic, killing an estimated 1.5 million people in 2020 and 1.4 million in 2019.

There is currently a "pivotal moment" in the fight against the disease, according to Tereza Kasaeva, director of the worldwide TB program for the UN health agency. "For the first time in nearly two decades, WHO is reporting an increase in the number of people falling ill with TB and the drug-resistant tuberculosis, alongside an increase in TB related deaths," she said.

According to the WHO's annual Global TB report, 10.6 million individuals are anticipated to have contracted TB in 2021, a 4.5% increase over 2020. Last year, Southeast Asia (45%) and the Western Pacific area (23%) had the highest rates of TB cases (18%).

India, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines accounted for the majority of the anticipated rise in TB deaths worldwide. According to the paper, it's feasible that TB will "once again be the leading cause of death worldwide from a single infectious agent, replacing COVID-19".

"If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that with solidarity, determination, innovation, and the equitable use of tools, we can overcome severe health threats," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO chief said. "Let's apply those lessons to tuberculosis. It is time to put a stop to this long-time killer."

The incidence rate, or the number of new cases per 100,000 people annually, climbed by 3.6% between 2020 and 2021 after dropping by about 2% annually for most of the previous two decades. The WHO attributed COVID-19 to the disease's return.

A bacteria that most frequently attacks the lungs is what causes tuberculosis. Similar to COVID-19, it is spread through the air by infected individuals, such as by coughing. It can be avoided and treated. Global wars, the energy crisis, and related dangers to food security are likely to make the situation worse.

More than two-thirds of all cases worldwide were reported from eight nations: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.