Don’t stop tuberculosis research

LILI Koch was just four years old and gravely ill with tuberculosis when she was sent to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps for three months in the hope the alpine air would cure her.

The Seaforth resident, now 72, remembers being physically fatigued and sleeping more than she was awake but she was also traumatised by the loneliness and isolation of the place.

“I was very bored and very lonely — there were no TVs, no mobile phones, no radios or toys to play with … my parents were discouraged from visiting because it would make it harder for me to say goodbye to them,” Ms Koch said.

Back in the 1940s, quarantining TB patients and giving them a regimen of rest and good nutrition in mountain health retreats offered the best treatment for the potentially fatal disease.

To pass the time, Ms Koch and other sick children played games such as doctors and nurses, where they would pick up pine needles and prick their fingers in imitation of the daily needle pricks they had to check their blood.

“It sounds strange but that’s how we would fill in our long days,” Ms Koch said.

Sanatoriums were eventually transformed into hotels and ski lodges when an antibiotic was developed to cure TB.

Like many, Ms Koch believed the world was rid of TB but the latest figures from the World Health Organisation paint a different picture.

In 2012 there were about 8.6 million new cases of TB worldwide and 1.3 million people died from the disease, with HIV sufferers at high risk of developing TB.

On World TB Day on Monday, Ms Koch will hand a letter to Warringah MP and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, calling on him to reinstate $10 million into the aid budget for medical research into TB.

“(Funding) started in 2012 and was showing very promising results,” Ms Koch said.

“It’s not just about foreign aid, it affects every Australian. TB doesn’t care where it is in the world.”

In January, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade scrapped funding for its Medical Research Strategy in 2013-14, saying the budget was fully committed to government priorities.

Ms Koch now works as a Director at Australian Doctors International and also volunteers for RESULTS International (Australia), based on the Northern Beaches, which aims to end extreme poverty.

She said funding was vital in preventing and treating multi-drug resistant strains of TB in places such as Papua New Guinea, where suffers have cut their six-month course of antibiotics short and the TB has reinvented itself.

HEALTH FACTS:

* TB is a highly contagious airborne bacterial infection that usually affects the lungs — symptoms include cough, fever, night sweats and weight loss

* Tuberculosis (TB) is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent

* World Tuberculosis Day on Monday, 24 March calls on governments and health organisations to ensure everyone suffering from TB has access to diagnosis, treatment and cure

* This year’s theme is “Reach the 3 million” — of the nine million people worldwide who get sick each year with TB, one third of them are missed by health systems and don’t get the care they need.

* More info: who.int/campaigns/tb-day/2014/event/en/

Published in The Manly Daily on World TB Day on March 24, 2014.