No one is immune to TB

2008-03-31 00:00

Last Monday was World TB Day 2008, which carried the message that tuberculosis remains an epidemic in much of the world, causing thousands of deaths annually. In South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal is one of the worst-afflicted provinces and the number of cases registered here increased by 80% in the period 2001 to 2004, an increase directly related to the incidence of HIV. Just as we have the highest caseload so, too, do we have the highest number of treatment defaulters — patients who relapse because they fail to complete treatment.

A feature article on the subject last week explained that treatment is long and often has unpleasant side effects. However, as the sufferer whose story was given in the article emphasised, one needs to accept these things and persevere. The cure for TB, apart from the alarming drug-resistant strains now emerging, is straightforward and it works.

Unfortunately, not every TB patient fully understands this, as can be seen by those in the Eastern Cape who broke out of their isolation quarters over the Easter weekend and escaped. Although most of them have since returned to hospital, there is no way of knowing how many people, including family, friends and members of the public, they put at risk of infection while they were on the loose. Clearly it is necessary for health authorities to spend money on stepping up efforts to make hospitalisation for TB seem less like a prison sentence, striving to keep patients interested and usefully occupied instead of allowing tedium and monotony to drive them to desperation and so put others at risk.

Clearly, it is necessary, too, to beef up public education programmes. While the very poor, and especially those who are HIV-positive, are most susceptible to TB infection, no one is immune and anyone can be infected at any time. “It can’t happen to me,” is seldom, if ever, true.

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