When someone in Turkmenistan learns they have tuberculosis (TB), the questions they need answered come thick and fast. What is this illness? Will it kill me? Can I get treated for it? How will it affect my family? Will I lose my job, or even my home?
TB can kill. But the disease is curable, although treatment in Turkmenistan is a long and difficult process. And poverty and stigma can make recovery even more difficult.
That’s why, for more than a decade, the British Red Cross has worked with our partner – the Turkmenistan Red Crescent – to support thousands of people through months of treatment and recovery.
The Red Crescent TB programme is running in five cities across Turkmenistan. See how vital it was for three people who have fought TB in the last few years – Andrey, Azat and Jeren.
Shock, fear and denial
When welder Andrey Yushko fell ill with TB, he thought he had a simple cough. But cough syrup did nothing – and soon he was feeling much worse.
He says: “I was sweating a lot – and ten times as much at night. Aspirin was no use. So I called for an ambulance.”
Andrey ended up in a hospital 150 miles from his home in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. His appetite had gone. He says: “At the beginning, it was very hard for me. I was very scared. I thought of death.”
For computer programmer Azat, the first signs were a high temperature. But the fever seemed to pass and he thought no more of it. Then, on a fishing trip, he collapsed into the water. Back home in Ashgabat he was tired and his high temperature returned.
After an X-ray, a doctor said Azat might have TB. Azat says: “I broke out laughing. I did not believe it.” But the doctor was right.
TB is spread through the coughs and sneezes of infected people, so it is often passed between those who spend lots of time close together. Azat’s family were all at risk, and needed tests themselves. He was relieved to find out that none of them had the illness.
Jeren Bekmuradova had the same symptoms as Andrey and Azat – coughing, sweating, a high temperature and weight loss. The 29-year-old mum from Mary says: “I thought I’d have these symptoms for ever. But it turned out you can get treatment.”
“I was in hysterics”
The first stage of treatment happens in hospital, where patients are separated from their families and friends to avoid spreading the illness. This was heartbreaking for Jeren, whose daughter Nyazli was just seven months old. Jeren says: “I couldn’t even hold her. I was in hysterics, crying.”
Patients can stay in hospital for a few months or close to a year. Four years after she left, Jeren remembers exactly how long she was away from her family – 52 days.
Help at a crucial time
When patients leave hospital, they continue to take medication for months or even years. This is where the Red Crescent comes in.
Red Crescent nurses supervise patients while they take their medication, giving them information, advice and encouragement. If you stop or even pause the treatment the TB can develop into a much more serious form of the illness. So it is absolutely crucial that patients take all their medication in the right way – even when it makes them feel weak or nauseous.
Like many people getting treatment for TB, Andrey was too ill to work. He found it hard to get money for food. For people with the illness, a poor diet is a huge problem – they need to be eating well for the medication to work. Again, the Red Crescent can help.
Andrey, Azat and Jeren were all given Red Crescent food parcels that gave them the diet they needed for treatment to work. They also got essential toiletries and cleaning products to keep their homes as hygienic as possible.
Andrey was surprised by the amount of help available.
The happiest person in the world
For Azat, the encouragement and words of support he got from the Red Crescent’s nurses were the biggest help. Many people in Turkmenistan don’t know the facts about TB, and those with the illness can experience stigma and discrimination. This can make it harder for them to get a job or rent a flat. Some are even rejected by their friends and family. And without motivation, completing treatment is so much harder.
Guljan, the head of a government TB clinic in Mary, says: “People with TB get very depressed when they find out about their illness. Much work must be done to make them believe in recovery.”
Guljan praises the Red Crescent for teaching the public about the illness in schools, workplaces and elsewhere. She said better awareness is tackling discrimination and giving people with TB the confidence to seek treatment.
Andrey, Azat and Jeren have all either finished or come towards the end of their treatment. All three are feeling much more positive. One of the highlights of Jeren’s recovery came when she could hold her baby for the first time in months.
“I was the happiest person in the world,” she says.
- In 2015, the Red Crescent is aiming to help 370 people complete their TB treatment – and 26,200 members of the public learn the facts about the illness. Read more about the programme, which is supported by the British Red Cross.
- Get more real-life TB stories from Arsene and Larisa.
- Worried you may have TB? Get information about treatment and support in the UK.