Support ramps up in South Africa as TB awareness month draws to a close

Published: 28 March 2014 8:22 CET

Hansika Bhagani, IFRC

It has been a busy month for the Eastern Cape branch of the South African Red Cross Society. As tuberculosis (TB) awareness month draws to a close, there has been a flurry of activity in TB education and testing.

“Seeing as March is TB month, the multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) project decided to target areas that are vulnerable or prone to TB infection,” says Ruth Mufalali-van Rooyen, project manager, South African Red Cross Society. “This includes overcrowded areas with a lack of proper sanitation, where people do not have any direct access to water or electricity, and in slum areas. We did school campaigns and door-to-door campaigns. We selected schools where most of the kids who attend are from impoverished households. Some had a family member who is infected with MDR-TB, as are some of the children themselves.”

Over the course of the month, 724 children from five schools were educated about the signs and symptoms of TB. More than half of these students were then tested for TB. As part of the door-to-door visits, 150 people were educated.

Volunteers play a critical role in encouraging people to get tested in a society where stigma and discrimination against TB sufferers is still rife. “When people are found positive at a clinic level, they are then sent to the TB hospital where they are seen by a doctor to confirm results and initiate their treatment,” says van Rooyen.

Volunteers then step in to assist TB sufferers every step of the way. “The project has community-based supporters who ensure patients continue taking their treatment,” explains van-Rooyen. “They also educate family members about infection control and prevention, and frequently screen them should they experience symptoms of TB.”

Tuberculosis is a disease that usually affects the lungs. Although preventable and curable, it remains the leading cause of death among people infected with HIV worldwide. It is an opportunistic disease that takes advantage of people whose immune system is already weakened. 

Complicating treatment for some TB sufferers are the side effects that come from combining TB medication and HIV medication. In South Africa, the HIV rate is 17.9 per cent and many of those co-infected with both diseases often default on at least one of their treatments. The project being implemented by the South African Red Cross Society targets this especially vulnerable group, encouraging them to persist with their medication.

A traditional course of treatment for TB may involve taking a combination of drugs for six months to a year. But if people do not take their medication correctly, or stop taking it when they feel better, the strain of TB can become resistant to the two most effective anti-TB drugs, isoniazid and rifampicin. That new strain can be passed on to other individuals, which can take up to two years to treat with more expensive, less effective and more toxic drugs.

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs ‘Mortality and causes of death in South Africa’ report shows tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in the country, responsible for 10 per cent of deaths in 2011, killing 54,112 people.

However, with the emotional and practical support offered, van-Rooyen and her team of Red Cross volunteers are finding increasing hope. “As we are supplying the patients with hygiene kits and food parcels on a quarterly basis, and offering health education, we are finding the number of patients defaulting on their treatment decreases and more patients are completing their treatment.”