Better TB Management Urgently Needed

I had heard about tuberculosis (TB) and the wreckage it causes in a patient’s life just in the passing, until I set out to document issues hindering drug access.

The dismal condition of a patient I found at Bulondo health centre III in Wakiso district exceeded my saddest expectations. Fred Musoke’s lips were chapped, dry and red, bones almost visible and his skin as dark as ebony.

He tossed and turned, seeking comfort, coughing and spitting into his lesu. Death, he said, would be a reprieve.

“I feel feverish all the time and do not have appetite. The woman that I wanted to marry left me about two months ago because of this sickness,” he muttered from behind a dark green mask covering his mouth and nose. He keeps the mask on to avoid spreading the TB to others. Before I could talk to him, I was handed one too.

Before getting TB, Musoke, 31, was a market vendor selling second-hand clothes. Then five months ago he was diagnosed with TB.

“I was admitted two weeks ago after becoming so ill one weekend that I could not walk,” he said.

Because Musoke has HIV, he is no stranger to the health centre. It is here that he has been getting ARVs. However, his struggle is further complicated by inadequate drugs at the facility.

“Many of our health facilities do not have some of the most required drugs such as Ethambutol, Isoniazid and Rifampicin needed to treat regular TB and also Septrin which is necessary in fighting opportunistic infections like TB in people with HIV,” says Expedit Mwambazi, Wakiso district’s TB focal person

The centre’s laboratory room was crawling with spiders and wasps instead of diagnostic equipment. It has been so for over five years, according to one of the health workers.

Many health centres do not have TB units, which has perpetuated the mixture of TB patients with other patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that people with TB can infect up to 15 other people through close contact. TB remains the biggest killer of people living with HIV, causing nearly 50 per cent of deaths. Primah Kazoora, a TB survivor, says malnutrition, living in slums and poorly-ventilated houses also accelerate the development of TB.

The lethal annihilator:

Tuberculosis is one of the deadliest and most disabling diseases. It is an airborne disease caused by a type of bacterium mycobacterium tuberculosis, transmitted by being in proximity to coughing, talking or sneezing patients. If not treated promptly and consistently, says Dr Alphonse Okwera, the head of Mulago hospital’s TB treatment centre, it weakens the patient, damages the lungs and may spread throughout the body.

In its aanced stages, the sputum comes with blood. TB kills some 4,700 Ugandans every year. In its 2013 report, WHO noted that of the 8.6 million people that fell ill with TB in 2012, 1.3 million died. At least 95 per cent of these deaths were recorded in middle and low-income countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Swaziland.

“In 2012, an estimated 530,000 children became ill with TB and 74,000 HIV-negative children died of TB. At any given moment, 12 million people globally are suffering from an active infection,” reads the report.

TB kills someone approximately every 25 seconds and an estimated nine million new cases develop each year. The WHO report ranks Uganda 18th out of 22 high-burden countries that account for 80 per cent of new TB infections worldwide.

According to ministry of Health and the National TB and Leprosy Programme (NTLP), there were approximately 49,000 new TB cases in Uganda in 2011.

“The high burden of the TB disease is mainly in the urban and peri-urban centres, with Kampala accounting for 7,800 cases, Wakiso 1,300 cases and other regional towns account for between 1,300 and 1,600 cases each,” says Dorothy Namutamba, the programme officer at the International Community of Women Living with HIVAids, Eastern Africa (ICWEA).

Although its burden is spread across all age groups, TB exacts its greatest toll on individuals during their most productive years, from ages 15 to 44. Uganda in 2000 pledged, as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to halve TB prevalence and deaths by 2015. But despite setting up over 1,200 diagnostic centres nationwide, it is still far from these goals.

Challenges in the TB combat:

Namutamba says one of the major setbacks is lack of priority and limited information about TB in communities.

“Unlike HIV which has gained ground through community sensitizations and literacy programmes implemented by government and the civil society efforts, TB has been left to the laboratories and the health care providers,” she says.

In an assessment study by ICWEA on the availability and accessibility of TBHIV services in Kampala, Wakiso, Mityana and Mubende districts between 2010 and 2012, majority of the interviewees showed low knowledge on TB .

“When a person develops active TB, the symptoms including cough, fever, night sweats, weight loss and blood-stained sputum, may be mild for many months. This may lead to delays in seeking care,” says Dr Okwera.

Another challenge is the long duration of treatment, lasting at least eight months.

Rise of a superbug:

Because of the seemingly long duration, many patients abandon the drugs.

“Only 78 per cent of those with the disease undergo successful treatment and the other fraction are those that die, fail on treatment and those for whom follow-up is lost,” says Dr Frank Mugabe, the acting program manager, NTLP.

Lack of drug adherence has urshered in new drug- resistant forms of the bacterium, spreading a new phenomenon of multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). MDR-TB is a form of TB caused by bacteria that do not respond to, at least, Isoniazid and Rifampicin, the two most powerful, first-line anti-TB drugs.

Currently, the two-year drug regimen for MDR-TB costs $3,000 compared to $10 to treat regular TB.

“[Comprising] about 20 pills a day and painful injections for six months, MDR-TB treatment is difficult to adhere to. Even if patients adhere, half are likely to die from this type of TB,” says Dennis Kibira, a pharmacist and deputy director of the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS-Uganda).

In a move to nip resistance in the bud, Dr Mugabe says, the country has improved its ability to test for drug-resistant TB by introducing the GeneXpert, a rapid testing machine that can diagnose TB in sputum samples in less than two hours.

Nevertheless, there are only 14 treatment sites in the country. The ICWEA survey notes that Mubende hospital at the end of March 2013, had five patients who had been confirmed with MDR TB but sent them home because the hospital did not have drugs to treat them.

“We need a shorter treatment option to transform TB treatment from an agonizing ordeal, to a shorter, more tolerable, more effective and more affordable treatment course,” urges Kibira.

In our second part, we shall examine how patent rights are prohibiting access to new drugs and diagnostic technology in Uganda.

This story was supported by the African Centre for Media Excellence.

Source : The Observer

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