On World TB day, focus is on the three million patients missed by public health system

Sixteen-year-old A. Revathi* contracted tuberculosis last year. Then in class X, Revathi was scared when she heard the diagnosis, but began to feel better on taking medication. What scared her more though was the thought of people finding out.

No one except her immediate family knows she has TB. When she took a week’s absence from school, she attributed it to a bout of fever. “My friends will behave differently towards me if they know,” she said.

Tuberculosis may be one of the oldest known human diseases, but stigma about it continues to be deep-rooted.

R. Akila’s* husband did not complete his first medication regimen. “He was supposed to take it for six months, but stopped after four. Late last year, he became sick again,” she said. Another round of hospital-visits ensued, and Akila’s husband is on medication once again, but has not worked for three months.

While supporting their two children on her salary as a domestic help, Akila has taken pains to ensure that no one in the neighbourhood knows. “They will not eat our food, will not enter our home and will not allow their children to play with mine if they find out,” she said. Residents of the locality know her husband is somewhat unwell, but do not know why.

Ramya Ananthakrishnan, executive director, REACH, a non-profit organisation working for TB control in Chennai, said the disease needed to be talked about more. “A lot of patients don’t even tell their own families. And this makes treatment more difficult. Patient empowerment is crucial to start eradicating the stigma and counselling plays a huge role. Once the patients know a little about the disease, they realise there is no reason for it to be stigmatised,” she said.

This year, the theme for World Tuberculosis Day (March 24), is ‘Reach the 3 million. Find. Treat. Cure TB.’ Of the nine million people a year who get sick with TB, a third of them are missed by the public health system. It is this ‘missed’ population that the theme focuses on.

On Sunday, REACH organised ‘Sandhipom Sindhipom’ in Vepery, inviting patients and their families for a get-together. Around 15 stalls provided entertainment, information and food. While the children lined up for balloons and popcorns, the adults were told about the disease, the importance of not stopping medication and the need for faster diagnosis.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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