This blog original appeared on the Generation Nutrition website on World TB Day (24th March) and was written by our Policy Advocacy Coordinator, Laura Kerr.

Did you know that acute malnutrition and tuberculosis (TB) not only share a root cause – poverty – but actually coincide to create a vicious cycle of poor health? 

You’re probably thinking two things right now: I thought TB had been stamped out and, what does TB have to do with malnutrition? The truth is that acute malnutrition and tuberculosis (TB) not only share a root cause – poverty – but they often coincide to create a vicious cycle of poor health. On a day dedicated to bringing global attention to the eradication of TB, we look at how malnutrition is connected to so many global issues in the world.

Acute malnutrition and TB – on their own they are two of the most pervasive global health issues in the world. Far from being eradicated, TB is one of the ‘big three’ deadly public health threats, along with HIV/AIDS and Malaria, and causes 1.5 million deaths every year.  There are a total of 9 million new cases of TB every year. Acute malnutrition affects a staggering 52 million children today – equivalent to the population of South Africa – and is responsible for 1 million deaths in children under five every year. To put that into context, that’s one child every 30 seconds.

The Same Root Cause

In many countries the areas of high food and nutrition insecurity, where acute malnutrition is at its worst, overlap with regions with high rates of TB.  They are more prevalent in the most impoverished areas, making both malnutrition and TB ‘diseases of poverty’. With such high numbers of people suffering from TB, and a similarly high number of people suffering from malnutrition, it is little wonder there are links between these two diseases.

The Vicious Cycle between Acute Malnutrition and TB

Suffering from acute malnutrition leaves your body weak and vulnerable to catching diseases, such as TB. Further, a weakened immunity can result in TB progressing from a latent to an active infection.

On the other hand, the body of a person suffering from TB has an increased demand for energy, which often causes a TB patient to lose a significant amount of weight and this can worsen acute malnutrition. In fact, over half of TB patients are malnourished when they are diagnosed with TB. This includes 17% with severe acute malnutrition.

Even more importantly, drugs to treat TB often do not work properly if a patient suffering from TB does not have a good, nutritious diet. Without an adequate amount of food, these drugs can even have an adverse effect on a person’s health.

Source: World Food Programme
Source: World Food Programme

TB and Acute Malnutrition – Attention Needed!

The good news is that TB and acute malnutrition are both treatable! But both are not given the attention, research and finance, required to eliminate them for good. The four main drugs currently used to treat tuberculosis are decades old, take six months to rid the body of the infection, and, because tuberculosis is well-adapted to the human body, are becoming obsolete. Thus drug-resistant TB requires much more complicated, expensive and toxic treatment. And while innovative and revolutionary treatment does exist for severe acute malnutrition, only 15% of children globally are able to access these life-saving services.

Further, acute malnutrition is often associated with humanitarian emergencies only, and not considered an everyday public health emergency alongside diseases like TB.

Identification and treatment of malnutrition is essential for the successful treatment of TB. World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for the management of acute malnutrition for individuals with TB, recommend all individuals receive an assessment and appropriate counselling on their nutritional status at diagnosis and throughout treatment. We must ensure these guidelines are followed if we are to successfully tackle acute malnutrition and TB.

Take Action!

The link between TB and acute malnutrition is just one example of the importance of wider integration of acute malnutrition into global health conversations.

Take action and let your Government know, acute malnutrition is an everyday emergency.