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How much do we know about TB?

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Staff of the TB lab in Turkmenistan.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease and continues to be the number one cause of death from an infectious disease. Even though TB treatment can be very exhausting and painful, the disease itself is highly treatable. How is it possible then, that annually, over 10.4 million become infected and 1.7 million dies from TB?

Because treating TB has to be very specific, since each individual case is different. Therefore, the appropriate patient-centred care must be available. Doctors have to know what combination of drugs to give the patient and how long the drugs have to be administered. High quality drugs with identical dosage must be available and daily treatment has to be continuous for many months. Patients also have to be well rested and given a nutritious diet to keep their immune systems strong. Many less developed countries do not have ideal conditions, which is why over 95% of TB deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Even in the West, almost one third of TB cases are misdiagnosed, as TB symptoms are very similar to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia and HIV. That is why it is important to get tested early. Once symptoms such as coughing for more than 3 weeks, weight loss, heavy sweating at night, constant fever, chills and loss of appetite arrive, it is essential to get tested so there is more time to correct a possible misdiagnosis. The longer you hesitate with treatment, the more time bacteria have to spread through other parts of the body making treatment more painful and increasing the chance of failed treatment.

In Turkmenistan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has helped the Ministry of Health and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan with the upgrade of rapid molecular detection laboratories. There are currently 6 high tech labs in Turkmenistan, which can detect TB and MDR-TB (multi drug resistant tuberculosis) in just a few hours to a few days. While MDR-TB is rarer, it is harder to treat, with only 54% of patients’ worldwide successfully completing treatment. Unfortunately, it takes twice as long to treat compared to the 6-8 months treatment of TB and does not respond to more powerful first line drugs. Instead it has to be treated with a combination of stronger and more toxic second line drugs.

Despite this, there are reasons to be hopeful. Research has shown that staying mentally positive results in a much stronger and resilient body and immune system, which means a much faster and easier recovery. Often times, people may be scared of asking for help, because they fear social stigma from their neighbours, co-workers, friends etc. But having a TB infection and choosing to deal with it on your own can be very difficult and lead to depression, helplessness and frustration. That is why no-one should be scared to ask for help. Because often we see that those who have benefitted from successful treatment have also been the ones to ask for help from family, professionals or even volunteer workers. Even in the face of discrimination, it is important to look past the fear and ignorance of others. Because asking for help might save your life.

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