Simple solutions to stop the deadly spread of TB in South Africa

Publicado: 12 abril 2013 12:47 CET

By Hanna Butler, IFRC  

In the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, something as simple as putting a sticker in a minibus is seen as a crucial step towards curbing the spread of tuberculosis (TB).

South Africa has one of the highest rates of TB in the world; 389,000 people contract the disease each year. It is a highly infectious airborne disease that thrives in a weakened immune system and, given South Africa’s already high rate of HIV, people are extremely susceptible to infection. TB is treatable, but a lack of awareness at the community level combined with challenges to completing treatment, has seen the disease spread rapidly. More worryingly, in South Africa the development of a strain resistant to drugs has emerged.  

South African Red Cross Society branches in the Eastern Cape provide care and support to TB patients in what is one of the poorest regions in the country. “The community is aware of TB, but they lack knowledge on how to protect themselves from getting it, spreading it and managing their treatment,” says Ruth Mufalali, South African Red Cross Society TB project manager.  

Putting stickers in local minibuses has been one activity in a month-long TB awareness campaign run by the organization across the Eastern Cape. Minibuses provide perfect conditions for TB to spread; if one person has it, then the other 14 people in the minibus are all at risk. “People tend to close windows in minibuses, stopping air from circulating. As TB is an airborne disease, it is very important to allow air circulation,” says Mufalali.

Educating people already infected with TB on the importance of completing their treatment isn’t, however, as simple as putting up stickers. TB treatment is a long and unpleasant process. Patients have to take medication on a daily basis and endure painful injections for six months that cause nauseating side-effects.

“The treatment is awful, it makes people lose weight, feel dizzy, develop sores and get swollen feet,” says Mufalili. “When they are getting treated for drug-resistant TB it is even worse, the treatment can take up to two years. It is not surprising people give up on it.”  

In rural areas where access is a barrier to receiving treatment, Mufalali and her team visit communities where people have to walk up to 50km to reach the nearest clinic to educate them about TB symptoms and the importance of early and continued treatment.  

The campaign also held an inter-high school debate to highlight issues and misconceptions of TB among students. TB is still stigmatized and people with the disease are often reluctant to share their status for fear of being ostracized.

Mufalali says while their campaign created awareness, dialogue and focus on TB through simple activities, long-term work is needed across all areas of society to reduce and eventually stop the spread of TB.  

“It’s frustrating to watch people die from TB. People need to know simple ways to prevent it and to keep from spreading it. It’s just so devastating because it is preventable.”