Like Garrawarra Cemetery, TB needs to be consigned to the history books

by Maree Nutt, CEO of RESULTS  Australia

I’m proud to call myself a South Coast girl who grew up in Bulli. I live in Sydney now and have taken many trips back visiting family over the years.  Until I read an article from The Illawarra Mercury in January, I never realised that with every trip I had been passing the final resting place of over 2000 sufferers of tuberculosis who are buried at Garrawarra Cemetery – they had spent their last days in isolation at a nearby sanatorium. The graves of Garrawarra are significant to me today because I’m trying to help end the scourge of tuberculosis once and for all.

I was gripped as I recounted with great imagery, a forgotten and overgrown graveyard, dating back to the turn of the last century. Buried there are the men, women, teenagers and children who died of a highly contagious, and at that time, virtually untreatable disease. With the advent of antibiotics to treat tuberculosis, the sanatorium and its cemetery thankfully became obsolete.

Today, the cemetery is a piece of local history worth preserving.  And tuberculosis? Surely, that too, is a disease of the past. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Until I became an advocate for ending poverty with RESULTS, I had no idea that tuberculosis still remains such a huge killer, with more than half of the global burden of TB found in the Asia-Pacific region.

The 100-year-old graves of Garrawarra reflect the fact that back then, tuberculosis was the leading killer of women. Today, it remains the third-biggest cause of death for women worldwide and also kills 74,000 children every year. In total, 9 million people are infected with TB annually and it kills 1.3 million. Most victims   are amongst the poorest people in the world.

Monday, March 24 is World TB Day. It marks the day back in 1882 when German Doctor Robert Koch announced to the world his discovery to the world that tuberculosis was caused by the bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis. His discovery was very important given that TB was raging through Europe, the Americas and to some extent Australia.

The incidence of TB in the industrialised world fell dramatically with the development of antibiotics. However, there have been no new TB drugs developed in the last 50 years meaning that whilst TB is totally curable, these old-fashioned antibiotics need to be taken every day for at least six months.  The test used to diagnose TB in most of the world is over 120-years-old as well as being slow and unreliable. There is also no effective vaccine for TB.

Fortunately, the last 12 years has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people receiving TB treatment thanks to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis. I am proud that Australia, along with other wealthy aid donors, is supporting the Global Fund which now provides more than two-thirds of international funding to combat TB.

However, more could be done including supporting the medical researchers both here and globally working to develop a long overdue vaccine, more effective drugs (that you would only take for a few weeks rather than six months) and more reliable and efficient diagnostics.

The graves of Garrawarra are a part of history now. It’s time that tuberculosis also became a relic of the past.

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