Monday, March 23, 2009

Ancient Killer still on the loose

In 1998, after three years of assignments in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, I tested positive for Tuberculosis (TB) during a routine medical. I had picked up my infection in the prisons of Georgia where I had been visiting detainees held in relation to the internal conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Luckily, my infection was latent, and after treatment I was given the all clear.

Others are not so lucky.
They do not have access to proper diagnosis, treatment or care and an incredible 1.7 million people die every year from a preventable age old disease which continues to be a massive modern day killer.

Among those dying from TB each year, 200,000 are also living with HIV. They are suffering what is commonly called “co-infection". Eastern Europe, Central Asia and - more recently - southern Africa are often considered as the most affected areas but the fact is that TB is also on the rise in Latin America and Asia – especially India and China - making it a prevalent global challenge.

It is worth repeating that TB is a disease that is curable if identified on time and when the correct treatment is provided. When no action is taken, because it is a highly contagious disease, everyone infected with TB will contaminate another ten to fifteen other people around them.

These facts clearly show the necessity for more effective prevention. Engaging with communities at risk is one of the most efficient ways to fight the disease but that is too often a rare approach.

Conventional global prevention campaigns do exist. Some of them are excellent such as the one involving the Portuguese football player Luis Figo. They do a lot to remind everyone that TB is still around today.

However, these mainstream campaigns also need to be complemented by action on the ground working together with the most vulnerable, including stigmatized groups because of their origins or because of their socio-economic status. As for HIV, we won’t reduce the number of TB cases as long as entire groups within our society are in the dark about the dangers they face.

It is precisely these marginalized groups that we work with when conducting awareness-raising campaigns. Once we identify community members who are infected with TB, volunteers help them get proper treatment. Even more crucial, they also visit them on a regular basis to make sure that they follow their treatments, they bring them nutritious food - when necessary - as well as psychosocial support. This is all the more important since TB patients can also be stigmatized and discriminated against within their own community. This is well portrayed in the video embedded in this post which documents the fantastic work being carried out by community-based volunteers in South Africa. There are also a number of TB survivors who go on to carry out influential advocacy and bring greater awareness and support to the struggle against TB.

If you woke up tomorrow morning and heard on the morning news that 12 Boeing 747s had crashed causing the death of all passengers on board I do believe you would be horrified and the world would be numb with shock. If you were to wake up up every single day to that same news for one year it would be barely conceivable. That's exactly the number of people dying from TB. We do not see them on the nightly news because they are hidden - hidden by poverty and stigma. At least on the 24th of March, World TB Day, we can take some time to find out more about this ancient modern day killer and see what more can be done to Stop TB.


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