V4 countries meet to strengthen collaboration on fighting TB

Elena Jablonicka

WHO representatives and delegations from the Visegrad Four (V4) countries gathered in High Tatras, Slovakia, on 20–21 February 2019 for an expert meeting on health with a specific focus on fighting tuberculosis (TB).

The Visegrad platform for intercountry cooperation dates back to a series of summit meetings in 1991. The V4 countries comprise Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The inauguration of a new WHO collaborating centre took place alongside the meeting. The National Register of Tuberculosis Patients Division at the National Institute for TВ, Lung Diseases and Thoracic Surgery, Vyšné Hágy, was designated as the WHO Collaborating Centre Working with Vulnerable Population Groups in Central Europe.

Speaking at the opening, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab welcomed the National Institute into WHO’s international collaborative network. She emphasized the shared goals of “supporting and advocating for interventions to eliminate TB in vulnerable groups and fostering a better understanding of the needs and conditions of these groups”.

Dr Jakab continued, “We trust our partners to continue sparking real change, working with WHO to end TB and avoidable health inequities, and to help drive action for sustainable, better health together.” The Regional Director was joined at the inauguration by high-level officials from the V4 countries.

Focus on ending TB among vulnerable groups

Ending TB is a main priority for the Slovak Presidency of the Visegrad Group. In Slovakia, as in many countries, TB remains a particular concern among the Roma population, which represents one of the most marginalized communities in the country. Rates of TB are higher among this population compared to the general population, and this is especially true among Roma children.

The National Institute for TB, Lung Diseases and Thoracic Surgery, Vyšné Hágy, is implementing an educational programme to train health assistants from Roma communities to help combat TB. This is a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Health and other institutional stakeholders, practitioners, experts and the WHO Country Office in Slovakia.

The programme successfully prepares Roma field workers to act as the first contact between Roma communities and health workers. This contact, free of linguistic or cultural barriers, enables basic medical examinations as well as follow-up treatment of patients with TB in outpatient settings in Roma communities.

As a result of the systematic work of Roma health assistants, more than 80% of adult Roma people with TB have been successfully treated. All index cases for children’s TB cases have been identified. In addition, the Roma health assistants help to ensure that high-risk Roma communities are under constant TB surveillance, and that every outbreak of TB is immediately identified and contained.

Defining cooperation on health among V4 countries

The topic of ending TB was in sharp focus during the V4 meeting that preceded the opening of the WHO Collaborating Centre. Cooperation among the V4 countries is well-defined in areas such as security, defence and infrastructure, but health is increasingly a priority for the group.

The previous V4 meeting of ministers of health was held in Budapest, Hungary, in February 2018. A joint statement signed by all 4 ministers at the gathering highlighted 4 priority areas for cooperation: noncommunicable diseases, childhood obesity, human resources for health and the expansion of primary health care.

At the recent V4 meeting, country representatives and WHO experts covered topics ranging from implementation of the WHO guidelines on TB to universal health coverage, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and strengthening primary health-care services.

The meeting gave WHO and the 4 countries an opportunity to more clearly define cooperation on health going forward, and to agree on a way of working together to tackle some of the most pressing health challenges and opportunities facing this subregion.

Dr Jakab expressed WHO’s full commitment to strengthening that cooperation, recognizing that subregional collaboration plays an important role in supporting progress towards achieving the SDGs.