The fight against TB begins with protecting health care workers

The fight against TB begins with protecting health care workers

By Leila Stennett and Dr Joyce Sauk Published by DevPolicy on March 24, 2017

Today is World TB (Tuberculosis) Day, the anniversary of the day in 1882 when the German physician Robert Koch discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB. As it has been for several thousand years, TB continues to be a serious cause of death and disability. In 2015 10.4 million people fell ill with TB and 1.8 million died. These numbers include 400,000 deaths of people living with HIV, making TB the most significant cause of death among HIV-positive people globally.

TB is especially a problem in the Asia-Pacific region, which bears 60% of the global burden of the disease. Closer to home, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has the highest rate of TB in the Pacific, and is particularly affected by multi drug-resistant (MDR) TB in Western Province (on the island of Daru) and in the National Capital District. Since standard TB treatment lasts six months – in the case of MDR-TB, a cure can take up to two years – and necessitates significant patient support, health care workers (HCWs) are vital to treatment success.

Yet HCWs – doctors, health extension officers (HEOs), nurses and community health workers – are at higher than average risk for TB. The experience of Dr Joyce Sauk, a District Medical Officer and TB survivor from PNG, certainly bears this out:

I believe I contracted TB whilst I was working in the Accidents & Emergency Department of Port Moresby General Hospital in my final year of doing Medicine in 2004. Around that time the doctor: patient ratio was around 1:5000 and competition was fierce amongst the medical students because we had only one medical school. We worked under pressure, without proper meals, rest and support.

Dr Sauk nearly quit medicine before completing her degree, an all too common occurrence in high-burden countries.

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