Today is World TB Day and it is a disease that definitely warrants its own day, considering one third of the world’s population is infected with TB bacilli, the microbes that cause tuberculosis.*
Although the world is on track to achieve one of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 which aims to reverse the global rates of people becoming infected with TB, it appears the UK is lagging behind.
Last November, the BBC reported that the number of tuberculosis cases in the UK topped 9,000 in 2009, the highest for nearly 30 years.
However, the vast majority of deaths from TB are in the developing world and tuberculosis is known as a disease of poverty. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), TB killed 1.7 million people in 2009.
Although more than two billion people are infected with TB bacilli, only one in every ten of those will become sick with active TB in their lifetime. People living with HIV and who have a weakened immune system are at a much greater risk.
The British Red Cross helps combat HIV and TB in countries such as Liberia, Lesotho and Kazakhstan through programmes that raise awareness about prevention, treatment, care and support and help to reduce stigma and discrimination.
Last month, I was in Kyrgyzstan where I met Svetlana Sooronova, a Kyrgyz Red Crescent nurse who works on the organisation’s TB programme.
TB is a contagious and airborne, yet curable disease, which along with lack of understanding about prevention and treatment, contributes to the huge stigma associated with the disease.
As well as visiting people with TB regularly to encourage them to keep up their treatment till they are cured, the Kyrgyz Red Crescent is also addressing the issue of stigma and discrimination. It does this by raising awareness and understanding of the disease through classes in schools, leaflet distribution, campaigns and radio announcements in markets and work places.
Svetlana took me to meet Tatiana, 65, and her husband who both have TB and are visited regularly by Red Crescent nurses.
It was snowing and freezing cold when we arrived at Tatiana’s home in an impoverished neighbourhood on the fringes of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. Inside the small house it was not much warmer and they certainly didn’t have central heating.
Tatiana told me: “Last summer, both me and my husband contracted TB and couldn’t get out of bed. We caught it from our older son, who already had it when he came back to live with us after being in prison. Our younger son was also in prison. He died of TB before he was released.
“Since starting the TB treatment we’re beginning to feel better and can get out of bed. We’d like to be able to improve our living conditions but it’s difficult as we don’t have any money, and we need it for things like soap, to keep clean.
“But the support I get from the Red Crescent means a lot to me and my family. We don’t have regular work and after we’ve paid our bills we have so little money, so the food parcel the nurse brings makes a big difference.”
The British Red Cross has a longstanding partnership with Astra Zeneca whose support to this TB programme, since 2002, contributes to the vital work being carried out by the Kyrgyz Red Crescent staff and volunteers.
Read more stories from people living with TB in Kyrgyzstan
Image © Sarah Oughton/BRC