March 24 is the anniversary of Dr. Robert Koch announcing,
in 1882, the discovery of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Just a short
time ago the assumption was that TB would one day be eradicated. Today, the
disease is back with a vengeance and the date the Dr. Koch announced his
discovery is commemorated as World TB Day.
Had I been in the United States on March 24 – World
TB Day – I probably would not have even been aware of the day's significance. I
encounter few Americans who think about TB today and have talked with some who
actually believe that the disease was successfully eradicated. Nothing could be
farther from the truth in South Africa – the nation with the fourth highest
burden of TB in the world. In 2006, over 450,000 new cases of tuberculosis were
reported in South Africa
alone. Of those patients, 44% also had HIV/AIDS. Perhaps even more disturbing
is that in South Africa,
7,300 cases of multi-drug resistant TB have been diagnosed, along with 500
cases of "extremely" drug resistant tuberculosis.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has been at the
forefront of HIV/AIDS activism in South Africa since 1998. It is a
social movement that was started to gain universal access to treatment for all
South Africans with HIV/AIDS. Given the high prevalence of co-infections with
HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, TAC now also works on educating the public on TB.
At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of World TB Day, TAC volunteers
spread out around the Khayelistha, one of the largest townships in South Africa located just minutes from Cape Town, distributing
leaflets to workers as they hurriedly made their way in the darkness to catch
the trains that would take them to their jobs in the city. In addition to the
leaflets, the activists handed out masks that, when worn, can greatly reduce
the risk of transmitting tuberculosis.
TAC also used World TB Day to launch a special initiative
aimed specifically at the township taxi drivers. Since TB can be spread from a
cough or a sneeze, TAC encouraged the drivers of the often over-crowded taxis
(that can accommodate 16 passengers) to open the windows to let fresh air into
the congested vans. Bumper stickers exclaiming "Stop TB! Open the windows!"
were provided to any driver who would place the sticker on their vehicle. The
activists then journeyed to Cape Town, in the
very taxis they were targeting for their education campaign, for a "Stop TB"
demonstration through the streets of what is commonly known as the "Mother City."
Given the devastating impact that TB is having in places
like South Africa and in other parts of the globe – combined with the rise of drug-resistant
strains of tuberculosis that have been identified in recent years – perhaps
it's time that World TB Day really does become an international event, and not
one that is primarily relegated to parts of the planet that are
disproportionately affected by the disease