“As part of World TB Day on 24 March, we want to send a strong message that TB is not a death sentence. However, it is a very serious disease if left untreated. In addition, those with TB who are not on treatment will be at higher risk of worse outcomes if they contract the Coronavirus,” says Dr Mohammed Rassool of the Clinical HIV Research Unit (CHRU).
“Those who have symptoms must test at their nearest healthcare facility,” adds Mirriam Manamathela, of the community advisory board at CHRU. While South Africa is one of the countries with the highest rates of tuberculosis (TB) worldwide, Manamathela says people need to know that TB is not a lifelong disease and it is curable.
“TB spreads very easily,” says Rassool. “When a person with active TB in the lungs coughs, talks, sneezes or spits, they emit germs into the air and anyone who breathes in these germs can become infected with TB. Drug-resistant TB is just as infectious as ordinary TB and anyone can get drug-resistant TB as well. There are many different types of TB, but the most common one is TB of the lungs.
“Some people are more at risk of TB than others such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with HIV, diabetes or cancer. Those with TB who are not on treatment are more likely to pass this on to others and potential long term lung impairment,” he adds. “The quicker you get treatment the better it is for you and those around you,” he says.
“People living in overcrowded, poorly ventilated areas are particularly at risk. When families and friends live together in small closed rooms they become more vulnerable to TB. So people living in informal settlements, prisons, mines or orphanages tend to be at a higher risk of getting TB.
“As per WHO and Department of Health statistics, it is estimated that about 80% of the population of South Africa is infected with TB bacteria, the vast majority of whom have latent TB rather than active TB disease. The highest prevalence of latent TB, estimated at 88%, has been found among those aged 30-39 living in townships and informal settlements,” he says.
Manamathela explains that, “Getting tested is easy. You have to go to your nearest healthcare facility. The nurse will ask you to cough into a bottle and your sputum specimen will be sent to laboratory. The process takes about 72 hours. If you are diagnosed with TB, you will be given medication and instructions on how often to take your treatment. You must take your treatment or you will compromise your recovery.”
Symptoms of TB
Symptoms of TB are coughing, chest pain, loss of weight, loss of appetite, coughing up blood, sweating at night, tiredness, weakness, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing. “If you have any of these symptoms, make sure to test at your nearest healthcare facility,” says Rassool.
“If someone tests positive for TB, it is vital for them to get onto TB treatment, stay on their medication, follow their healthcare worker’s advice and return to their clinic for regular check-ups,” he says. “Try and not interrupt treatment. Talk to your clinic staff about what may prevent you from taking your treatment.
“Those that don’t have TB must protect themselves. One of the main ways to do this is to open windows at home, at work and when using public transport and taxis,” says Rassool.
Manamathela, who supervises the CHRU counsellors that work with communities, explains that, “Communities have played a vital role in helping to find better, shorter treatments for TB by taking part in our clinical trials. Participants receive the highest quality care when taking part in a clinical trial, as we have to closely monitor their response. Our researchers apply the latest scientific knowledge to achieve better health outcomes for participants, and for the many patients who benefit after them,” she says. “Many of our trials are conducted in collaboration with international research networks.”