Tutu: TB toll in SA is disgraceful and unacceptable

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu calls for far more action to prevent, diagnose and treat TB in South Africa. Tutu was speaking at a private gala screening of the film, Breathe Umphefumlo.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu calls for far more action to prevent, diagnose and treat TB in South Africa. Tutu was speaking at a private gala screening of the film, Breathe Umphefumlo.
Kim Cloete

A private gala screening of the film Breathe Umphefumlo and its introduction by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has brought home the grim reality of the toll TB has taken on so many South Africans.

Tuberculosis is the number one cause of death in South Africa, with more than 50,000 people dying of TB every year.

“It is disgraceful. We can’t accept this. There are people dying who need not die.  We can’t go on accepting that people die – and die unnecessarily.  It is unacceptable. It is immoral. TB is a treatable disease,” Tutu said at Stellenbosch University on Monday night.

Tutu, who is Patron of the Desmond Tutu TB Centre at Stellenbosch University,  said the fight against TB needed to be "our next liberation struggle". 

“What is so desperately sad that we are probably the only country on the African continent where the incidence of TB is increasing. We need a new set of tools to diagnose and treat the disease.”

Read: TB - a major challenge for SA

A heartbreaking story of tuberculosis

Breathe Umphefumlo, which is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, held its first South African screening at Stellenbosch University to mark World TB Day – March 24.

The film’s main character, Mimi, dies from tuberculosis – an illness which has not abated - and indeed has risen in South Africa - since the 19th century when La Boheme was first performed in Turin, Italy.


Pauline Malefane, Busisiwe Ngejane and Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea in 'Breathe Umphefumlo' (Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival).

“The townships where the performers are drawn from, are amongst some of the world’s highest infection areas for TB. Many of the cast members have friends or relatives who have suffered from tuberculosis. TB is a time bomb waiting to explode unless we do more about it,” said Mark Dornford-May, director of Breathe Umphefumlo.

The film, which earned rave reviews during the recent Berlin Film Festival, is a collaboration between the Isango Ensemble, the Desmond Tutu TB Centre, Stellenbosch University and the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

“I’m proud to be part of a university which transforms by doing things differently,” said Nulda Beyers, Director of the Desmond Tutu TB Centre at Stellenbosch University.

“By bringing together academic research, film, music, art and the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, we’re working together to develop new ways to raise awareness about TB.”

Professor Beyers hopes the film will be shown as widely as possible, including in schools and community halls. It is due to be released in movie theatres and on television next year.

In its adaptation of La Boheme, Breathe – Umphefumlo moves the action from winter in 19th century Paris to Youth Day in 21st century Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where struggling artists, writers and actors are eking out a living on the margins of society.

With the naïve arrogance of youth, they think they will live forever. But one of them will not.

Lungelo has to watch as she dies. Even though most people who have TB can be cured, many still die.

"Too many people are falling through the cracks"

Beyers sees clear parallels with South Africa today. She says people need to be encouraged to get diagnosed for TB and to seek and keep going with treatment, while nurses and clinic staff need to be vigilant about identifying people who may be showing signs of TB.

Read: When must I suspect TB?

“Too many people are falling through the cracks – and we should do all we can to make sure everyone who needs it, is treated for TB.”

The symptoms of active TB of the lung are coughing, sometimes with sputum or blood, chest pains, weakness, weight loss, fever and night sweats. Tuberculosis is treatable with a six-month course of antibiotics.

At the reception after the screening of the film, Executive Director of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, Mpho Tutu, launched a children’s game for to help teach children about TB and the importance of taking treatment for it. She also launched a chart which helps TB patients to track their treatment.

Read more:

Exciting new MDR-Tb drug to be tried in SA

Drug-resistant TB remains a crisis

SA's Tb rate among the highest in the world

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