Even when tuberculosis (TB) treatment is free, hidden costs incurred by patients and their households (TB-affected households) may worsen poverty and health. Extreme TB-associated costs have been termed “catastrophic” but are poorly defined. We studied TB-affected households' hidden costs and their association with adverse TB outcome to create a clinically relevant definition of catastrophic costs.
From 26 October 2002 to 30 November 2009, TB patients ( n = 876, 11% with multi-drug-resistant [MDR] TB) and healthy controls ( n = 487) were recruited to a prospective cohort study in shantytowns in Lima, Peru. Patients were interviewed prior to and every 2–4 wk throughout treatment, recording direct (household expenses) and indirect (lost income) TB-related costs. Costs were expressed as a proportion of the household's annual income. In poorer households, costs were lower but constituted a higher proportion of the household's annual income: 27% (95% CI = 20%–43%) in the least-poor houses versus 48% (95% CI = 36%–50%) in the poorest. Adverse TB outcome was defined as death, treatment abandonment or treatment failure during therapy, or recurrence within 2 y. 23% (166/725) of patients with a defined treatment outcome had an adverse outcome. Total costs ≥20% of household annual income was defined as catastrophic because this threshold was most strongly associated with adverse TB outcome. Catastrophic costs were incurred by 345 households (39%). Having MDR TB was associated with a higher likelihood of incurring catastrophic costs (54% [95% CI = 43%–61%] versus 38% [95% CI = 34%–41%], p<0.003). Adverse outcome was independently associated with MDR TB (odds ratio [OR] = 8.4 [95% CI = 4.7–15], p<0.001), previous TB (OR = 2.1 [95% CI = 1.3–3.5], p = 0.005), days too unwell to work pre-treatment (OR = 1.01 [95% CI = 1.00–1.01], p = 0.02), and catastrophic costs (OR = 1.7 [95% CI = 1.1–2.6], p = 0.01). The adjusted population attributable fraction of adverse outcomes explained by catastrophic costs was 18% (95% CI = 6.9%–28%), similar to that of MDR TB (20% [95% CI = 14%–25%]). Sensitivity analyses demonstrated that existing catastrophic costs thresholds (≥10% or ≥15% of household annual income) were not associated with adverse outcome in our setting. Study limitations included not measuring certain “dis-saving” variables (including selling household items) and gathering only 6 mo of costs-specific follow-up data for MDR TB patients.
Despite free TB care, having TB disease was expensive for impoverished TB patients in Peru. Incurring higher relative costs was associated with adverse TB outcome. The population attributable fraction indicated that catastrophic costs and MDR TB were associated with similar proportions of adverse outcomes. Thus TB is a socioeconomic as well as infectious problem, and TB control interventions should address both the economic and clinical aspects of this disease.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Caused by the infectious microbe Mycobacterium tuberculosis, tuberculosis (or TB) is a global health problem. In 2012, an estimated 8.6 million people fell ill with TB, and 1.3 million were estimated to have died because of the disease. Poverty is widely recognized as an important risk factor for TB, and developing nations shoulder a disproportionate burden of both poverty and TB disease. For example, in Lima (the capital of Peru), the incidence of TB follows the poverty map, sparing residents living in rich areas of the city while spreading among poorer residents that live in overcrowded households.
The Peruvian government, non-profit organizations, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have extended healthcare programs to provide free diagnosis and treatment for TB and drug-resistant strains of TB in Peru, but rates of new TB cases remain high. For example, in Ventanilla (an area of 16 shantytowns located in northern Lima), the rate of infection was higher during the study period, at 162 new cases per 100,000 people per year, than the national average. About one-third of the 277,895 residents of Ventanilla live on under US$1 per day.
Poverty increases the risks associated with contracting TB infection, but the disease also affects the most economically productive age group, and the income of TB-affected households often decreases post-diagnosis, exacerbating poverty. A recent WHO consultation report proposed a target of eradicating catastrophic costs for TB-affected families by 2035, but hidden TB-related costs remain understudied, and there is no international consensus defining catastrophic costs incurred by patients and households affected by TB. Lost income and the cost of transport are among hidden costs associated with free treatment programs; these costs and their potential impact on patients and their households are not well defined. Here the researchers sought to clarify and characterize TB-related costs and explore whether there is a relationship between the hidden costs associated with free TB treatment programs and the likelihood of completing treatment and becoming cured of TB.
Over a seven-year period (2002–2009), the researchers recruited 876 study participants with TB diagnosed at health posts located in Ventanilla. To provide a comparative control group, a sample of 487 healthy individuals was also recruited to participate. Participants were interviewed prior to treatment, and households' TB-related direct expenses and indirect expenses (lost income attributed to TB) were recorded every 2–4 wk. Data were collected during scheduled household visits.
TB patients were poorer than controls, and analysis of the data showed that accessing free TB care was expensive for TB patients, especially those with multi-drug-resistant (MDR) TB. Total expenses were similar pre-treatment compared to during treatment for TB patients, despite receiving free care (1.1 versus 1.2 times the same household's monthly income). Even though direct expenses (for example, costs of medical examinations and medicines other than anti-TB therapy) were lower in the poorest households, their total expenses (direct and indirect) made up a greater proportion of their household annual income: 48% for the poorest households compared to 27% in the least-poor households.
The researchers defined costs that were equal to or above one-fifth (20%) of household annual income as catastrophic because this threshold marked the greatest association with adverse treatment outcomes such as death, abandoning treatment, failing to respond to treatment, or TB recurrence. By calculating the population attributable fraction—the proportional reduction in population adverse treatment outcomes that could occur if a risk factor was reduced to zero—the authors estimate that adverse TB outcomes explained by catastrophic costs and MDR TB were similar: 18% for catastrophic costs and 20% for MDR TB.
The findings of this study indicate a potential role for social protection as a means to improve TB disease control and health, as well as defining a novel, evidence-based threshold for catastrophic costs for TB-affected households of 20% or more of annual income. Addressing the economic impact of diagnosis and treatment in impoverished communities may increase the odds of curing TB.
Study limitations included only six months of follow-up data being gathered on costs for each participant and not recording “dissavings,” such as selling of household items in response to financial shock. Because the study was observational, the authors aren't able to determine the direction of the association between catastrophic costs and TB outcome. Even so, the study indicates that TB is a socioeconomic as well as infectious problem, and that TB control interventions should address both the economic and clinical aspects of the disease.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001675.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information about tuberculosis
Médecins Sans Frontières's TB&ME blog provides patients' stories of living with MDR TB
TB Alert, a UK-based charity that promotes TB awareness worldwide, has information on TB in several European, African, and Asian languages
More information is available about the Innovation For Health and Development (IFHAD) charity and its research team's work in Peru