World TB Day: A Voice from the Frontline
Today is World Tuberculosis (TB) Day, a day to raise awareness about one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. It falls every year on 24th of March, the anniversary of the discovery of the bacterium that causes TB (Mycobacterium Tuberculosis) by Dr. Robert Koch in Germany in 1882, which opened the way towards a diagnosis and cure.
TB is one of the diseases that mothers2mothers (m2m) Mentor Mothers—1,900 women employed as frontline health workers across 10 African countries—always have on their radar when they meet with clients. That’s because Africa accounts for 25% of the global TB burden, with an estimated 2.5 million cases in 2019. Adding to the concern, HIV and TB are a lethal combination, and sub-Saharan Africa is home to the largest number of people living with HIV in the world. According to the World Health Organization, people living with HIV are 18 times more likely to develop active TB disease than people without HIV. Without proper treatment, nearly all people with TB who are living with HIV will die, compared to 45% of HIV-negative people with TB.
To find out how Mentor Mothers work to keep their clients safe and healthy from this life-threatening disease, we spoke with Gorrete Banda, a Mentor Mother Team Leader at the Kapata Health Centre in Zambia. For Gorrete, TB is a disease that she is all too familiar with.
Gorrete: I was newly married and had tested positive for HIV. I had all the TB symptoms—persistent coughing, chest pains, pain with breathing or coughing, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats and chills. But it never crossed my mind that this could be TB. So I relied on self-medication which unfortunately never helped.
When I was training to become a Mentor Mother in 2021, the training session on TB was literally a lifesaver for me. As the trainer took us through the TB lesson, I was able to relate it to my experience. That gave me the knowledge and courage to seek TB treatment. Today, I am on my last line of treatment and I no longer feel the symptoms I had before commencing treatment. I look forward to being declared TB-free.
Q: What makes TB so dangerous to the clients you serve?
Gorrete: If they are living with HIV, their defense mechanism is quite weak which means if they are infected with TB they might transmit it to their loved ones and those around them, or even die if not properly treated.
Q: How aware are your clients about TB and the risks to those living with HIV?
Gorrete: As a Mentor Mother, it is my responsibility to ensure that each time I come in contact with any of my clients I educate them on TB, the dangers that come with TB, how it can be prevented, and how to cure it. I always screen my clients for TB by asking them if they have lost some weight over the past month, lost their appetite, are having night sweats, and if they have a persistent cough. If they show signs of TB, I educate them on TB and then refer them for a TB test
Q: What advice do you give your clients about TB?
Gorrete: I start by telling them that TB is an airborne disease. You can contract the disease if you are in congested places where there is little or no ventilation. That’s why it is important to always mask up when in public and in congested places, and to always have good ventilation in enclosed areas or buildings. And if you are found positive for TB, you should start treatment to prevent it from spreading to those around you. The treatment lasts six months and, if you adhere to the treatment, it is curable
Q: What kind of support do your clients need from you?
Gorrete: My clients need emotional support because it is not easy being HIV-positive. I talk with them often to keep reminding them of the importance of good adherence, good nutrition, good hygiene, and also remind them about the transmission and treatment of TB and how it can be prevented.
Q: What inspires you and keeps you going with regard to your clients and TB?
Gorrete: Being a Mentor Mother who has experienced the same situations as clients, it really inspires me to be able to comfort and encourage others through their challenging times. In regards to TB, I wouldn’t want any client to have TB because I know how painful it is. I use my experience to inspire others. I’ll always be sensitive about TB.
I’m grateful to m2m for the training as well as the job of a Mentor Mother. This job not only gave me life-saving information about TB that helped me get healthy, it has also given me much needed financial freedom and equipped me with tools to help young mothers going through different challenges to live positively.