To fight TB, we must take care of both politics and people

2015-03-24 06:00

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2015 is a year of inspiring and humbling landmarks in my life: It’s been 50 years since I was born; 30 years since I entered the music industry; 20 years since the birth of South Africa’s democracy; and 10 years since my humanitarian work deepened into a role as a United Nations ambassador.

Now I’m inspired to share my one vision with you all: A just world where all people can access health services, and are free to live healthy lives and fulfil their potential.

I have travelled across our continent and have seen that despite much progress, millions of people still do not have access to basic health services. This injustice is hindering the potential of our citizens, communities, and the entire continent.

Nowhere is this injustice more evident than in the case of tuberculosis (TB).

Today is World TB Day, a day to remind ourselves that this ancient airborne disease still kills 1.5 million people every year. In 2013, there were nearly half a million cases of TB here in South Africa.

TB is also the leading killer of people living with HIV, forming a deadly duo where each disease speeds the other’s progress. And many of the precious lives lost to these preventable and treatable illnesses are in the world’s poorest countries and among our most vulnerable people.

Their suffering has largely been invisible – and thus TB has remained invisible on the world stage.

We cannot continue to let this happen. Thankfully, South Africa has been a leader in the fight against TB around the globe. Thank you to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi who, as the chair of the global Stop TB Partnership, has helped to start a new global TB caucus of decision-makers dedicated to ending TB.

He has also been a leader here at home, focusing on ending TB among the most vulnerable and often forgotten groups such as prisoners and miners.

Minister Motsoaledi is an inspiration whose leadership other African leaders should follow and embrace in the fight against TB.

Beyond TB, we must focus on ensuring the poorest people, no matter where they live, can access health services. For instance, despite South Africa becoming a middle-income country, extraordinary numbers of people still cannot access care.

All of Africa’s leaders must fulfil their promises to increase spending on health to ensure we reach the unreached. At the next African Union summit, to be hosted in Johannesburg later this year, health for all must be high on the political agenda.

But we cannot just take care of politics; we must take care of people. Hundreds of thousands of South Africans are currently suffering from TB, but feel so much shame and experience so much discrimination that they are not coming forward for treatment.

Stigma is unseen, unfair, and unforgiving; it affects those who suffer not only from TB, but also from HIV, Ebola, and other diseases.

Most of us will hopefully never know the profound feeling of worthlessness and isolation experienced by people who have TB. We must take care of one another, and encourage people to come forward and seek care. As an airborne disease, TB does not discriminate – and neither should we.

I’m particularly inspired by one young woman, Phumeza Tislile from Khayelitsha, who endured two years of treatment for drug-resistant TB and lost her hearing in the process.

One morning, suddenly, she couldn’t hear the music in her headphones – as a musician I can’t even imagine how terrifying that realisation would be.

Thankfully, the global community came together to support Phumeza, and raised money to pay for a surgery that will hopefully restore her hearing.

Phumeza is now close to once again hearing the laughter of friends and family, and the music in her headphones.

Let us care for everyone the way Phumeza has been cared for, and ensure all people living with and suffering from TB and other diseases are treated with dignity and understanding, without discrimination, and are able to access the care and treatment they need.

In just a few days, I’ll have the incredible honour of opening the Cape Town Jazz Festival, and will be joined by Phumeza. Music doesn’t belong to any one person; it belongs to all of us. And just as everyone has a right to hear and enjoy music, everyone has the right to health.

Join me, and let’s dance to the beat of justice. Together we can raise our voices to ensure health for all.

Chaka Chaka is president of the Princess of Africa Foundation as well as Roll Back Malaria and United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) Goodwill Ambassador

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