Red Cross TB Project relieves the suffering of “Consumption Disease”

Published: 21 March 2014 14:58 CET

By Kevin Xia, IFRC

The old Chinese-language term for tuberculosis, ‘lao bing’ – like its English equivalent, consumption – carries with it overtones of a disease which eats up the sufferer’s strength, resources and finances, before often claiming his or her life.

A pilot project in central China’s Shanxi province, supported by the Red Cross Society of China, helps to overcome the poverty-aggravated menace of drug-resistant TB. It has achieved clear results in combatting the disease.

The challenge and the imperative, though, is to make that progress sustainable in a country which has one of the largest case-loads of Multi Drug Resistant TB (MDR-TB).

For patients like Wu Minying, 59, the battle against the disease has been a critical one. “I have been suffering from TB for four years,” he says, struggling to sit up in bed with the help of his wife. After he was initially diagnosed with tuberculosis, he received free treatment from the government for several months. But the disease recurred after he failed to complete the course and his general health deteriorated.

Having become resistant to a number of the most common anti-TB drugs, he was then told he needed to try new medicines which were financially out of his reach. On top of his health problems, which made him unable to work, Mr. Wu also needed to support his wife and elderly mother.

“My two sons work in the provincial capital as construction workers, and are not able to do much to alleviate the family’s economic woes,” he says.

Observation is key

But some help has come to Mr. Wu since 2010, when the Red Cross Society of China started piloting an MDR-TB project in the Changzhi prefecture with the support from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The project focuses on people who have been diagnosed with TB and have failed, for whatever reason, to be cured.

Local Red Cross volunteers, most of them medical workers, ‘barefoot doctors’ or people with similar backgrounds, are mobilized and trained to ensure the patients take their TB medication – a process known as Directly Observed Treatment.

They visit the patients regularly, observe their medicine-intake and respond when the patients have questions or need someone to talk to. The project also provides nutritious food and transport subsidies to medical facilities. Social and medical support in rural China is still incomplete and under reform. The project alleviates the financial and emotional burden of individuals suffering from TB.

“To cure tuberculosis, it is essential that the treatment is completed and managed properly. If not, there is a high risk that the bacteria that cause TB will become resistant to the drugs,” says Chen Hong, the IFRC’s East Asia regional health manager.

“This project improves the welfare of many vulnerable people, and we will learn lessons and gain experience from it in order to work towards a sustainable model for future MDR-TB projects in China,” said Qin Aiying, vice mayor of Changzhi Prefecture and Changzhi Red Cross Chapter President.

It’s not just about treatment

In addition to providing financial, technical and social support, the Red Cross also focuses on advocating for this vulnerable group, lobbying national and local governments to make sure there are resources available to control MDR-TB. It also promotes awareness and knowledge that helps alleviate discrimination against people with tuberculosis.

There is evidence that this humanitarian voice is making a difference. Health authorities have put efforts into producing more reliable drugs that are affordable for rural residents. Local government has also been providing additional medicine for potential side effects of TB treatment.

The pilot project, supported by funds from the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, is due to end in December this year and the question is what happens next?

In the last two years, some 16 of the 50 patients involved in the project have been cured, which is a significant number, given that one untreated patient can easily infect several others. “Some patients, including Mr. Wu, are still receiving the treatment due to their vulnerable health and various other factors. So we are working hard to ensure that this carries on even after the project ends and it’s essential that we get the support to ensure that can happen,” says IFRC’s Chen Hong.

Trained volunteers from the same community as those they are helping, who speak the same language, can help reach the most inaccessible, poor and vulnerable populations and contribute towards achieving  universal health coverage.

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