Today, the world commemorates World TB Day to raise awareness for this global infectious disease. Mzansi struggles with the burden of tuberculosis, not just because of the high prevalence of the disease, but also due to the stigma that still surrounds TB. However, it can be treated successfully.
The reason why World TB Day is on 24 March dates back to 1882 when Dr Robert Koch astounded the scientific community by announcing in Berlin, Germany that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis, the TB bacillus.
Mom shares tuberculosis triumph
The bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB), attacks and damages the lungs, however, the good news is that it can be treated.
Phindiswa Kula-Tapuko from Cape Town’s Loid township has had tuberculosis once in her lifetime. Her diagnosis came in 2000, just after giving birth.
Kula-Tapuko says she was coughing, and sometimes there were streaks of blood and bloody phlegm coming out of her mouth.
When Kula-Tapuko went to the doctor, she was informed she had lung tuberculosis.
Importance of continuous treatment
“Afterwards, I was offered a six-month treatment option. I took it for approximately four months until I felt healthy and fit, and then I stopped. After a week, all of the symptoms resurfaced, and this time I had trouble walking.”
She reports experiencing soreness in her feet. “Another challenge was the daily visits to the clinic. The stigma of tuberculosis – seeing people you knew in your best days – was unbearable. But I had to choose myself.”
She tells Health For Mzansi that, after her TB default, she had to resume treatment from scratch, which this time, lasted eight months. Her baby was given a two-month treatment for the prevention of mother-to-baby transmission.
Kula-Tapuko says she was told that her unhygienic living conditions caused the TB. At the time, she was living in a squatter camp. After that, she was instructed to eat well and maintain a clean environment.
Know the symptoms of TB
Although there are two varieties of tuberculosis – pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis – the disease’s presentation and symptoms may vary, explains Dr Mxolisi Xulu, an intern at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha.
According to Xulu, mycobacterium tuberculosis causes TB which may spread through the air from person to person.
TB bacteria may target any area of the body, including the kidneys, brain, spine, and abdomen, in addition to the lungs. The most prevalent kind of active TB is lung TB, but it may spread to other organs, a condition known as extrapulmonary TB, he says.
Extrapulmonary vs mycobacterium tuberculosis
Extrapulmonary TB has the same and additional symptoms, explains Xulu. “The symptoms of extrapulmonary tuberculosis differ, depending on the afflicted portion of the body.”
Extrapulmonary disease is subdivided into several subtypes, and the most frequent extrapulmonary TB sites are the lymph nodes, pleura, bone and joints, the urogenital tract, and the meninges.
“Symptoms of extrapulmonary TB, such as tuberculous meningitis, include severe headache, stiff neck, convulsions, vomiting, and fatigue.”
Pulmonary TB (PTB) is a chronic, debilitating illness that may manifest as acute pneumonia. Pneumonia in HIV-positive people is brought on by the same bacteria that causes TB. As a result, owing to various reasons, several people developed pneumonia during the lockdown and Covid-19, according to Xulu.
“Some of the patients who visited medical institutions for their treatments had difficulties associated with TB.”
TB is a leading killer of people living with HIV causing one-fifth of all deaths.
The stigma associated with TB
Clinical psychologist Luyanda Memela from Addington Hospital in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, says stigma often comes from a lack of understanding or fear.
“Generally, stigma is associated with negative social experiences, such as rejection, marginalisation, and discrimination.”
Stigmatisation can also affect a person’s illness, self-esteem, and treatment. It doesn’t end there; it also affects the patient’s family and relatives, adds Memela.
“TB is one of the medical conditions with stigmatisation in this country. It is important for patients to be able to navigate the realities around TB stigma.”
Memela says that some other people are afraid of TB to the extent that they believe it is incurable.
Treatment is life-saving
To prevent the spread of TB, people need to get used to opening windows at home, at work, and even when using public transportation.
“While coughing, people should always place their elbow over their mouth. After using the lavatory and touching themselves, they must wash their hands,” advises Xulu.
Some of the coping mechanisms for TB patients include taking treatment and following doctor’s orders as soon as one gets diagnosed.
Memela says that stigma may originate not just from other people, but also from oneself. There is a stigma associated with TB because some people mistakenly assume that having TB symptoms is an indication of personal weakness.
“Don’t let stigma create self-doubt or shame,” Memela concludes.
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