MUMBAI: The simple face mask–mandatory in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic—may just help India’s fight against one of the oldest pestilence: Tuberculosis.
“If masks become routine in India, just like they are in Japan, then we could well meet our target of eliminating TB by 2025,” said pulmonologist Dr Sanjeev Mehta.
The World Health Organisation has set a deadline of 2030 to eliminate TB, but the Indian government announced an earlier deadline of 2025.
As India is home to 25% of all tuberculosis patients in the world, public health experts felt the 2025 deadline was ambitious. “But if we continue using mask and remember to follow cough etiquette, the deadline no longer seems ambitious,” added Dr Mehta.
TB has been one of the most discussed topics during the Covid pandemic because of the “protection” provided by the TB vaccine (BCG) against the novel coronavirus. TB patients, though, have suffered due to lack of medicines and the difficulty in travelling to treatment centres during the lockdown. TB detection rates dropped in the early phase of Covid in March, but health officials said hte services are now inching back to normalcy.
A private sector doctor said there are fewer new cases because of the lower risk of transmission. “People are staying home or moving out with masks, resulting in a lower risk of transmission. Moreover, families are now likely to pay attention to a cough that last more than two weeks and seek test and scans that will detect TB early,” he said.
A senior BMC official associated with the TB programme refused to comment on Covid’s impact on TB detection and treatment. The official said as both the disease spread via droplet, the use of mask should benefit the TB programme as well. “But we haven’t had time to study Covid’s impact on TB so far,” the official added.
Compared to the Covid-spreading novel coronavirus, the TB mycobacterium is big. “The TB bacillus spreads through droplet released when a person coughs or sneezes. The microbe travels at the speed of Ferrari across the room, but even a handkerchief (as against face masks that have tinier pores and have two- to three-ply material) can stop it instantly,” said Dr Lalit Anande, medical supervisor of the BMC-run TB hospital in Sewri.
Dr Stobdan Kalon of international NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), India, said, “Using a face mask could impact the TB epidemic in India in two ways.’’ Firstly, Covid has exposed the weak investments in public health over the years. “Increased investment in public health machinery will directly benefit TB control program in India,’’ he said.
Secondly, a mask is an infection control measure which is a neglected field in India. “Many relatives and healthcare workers get TB because the patients don’t use masks. But Covid has ensured that the common man in India now knows about N95 masks and PPEs. Covid has heightened awareness and sensitized people about the need for infection control which will definitely benefit the TB control program,’’ added Dr Kalon.