Students in Lusaka, Zambia, learn about tuberculosis and resolve to sensitize their peers.
We would like to share an experience that opened our eyes to some issues that most of us take very lightly. Our teacher, Florence Lutale, introduced us to a global programme in collaboration with the Genius Group of Schools in Rajkot, India, and schools in the United States to share our experience on global infectious diseases. The programme is the brainchild of GreenContributor, a non-governmental organization. We identified tuberculosis (TB), which is often overshadowed by HIV/AIDS in terms of publicity. While conducting research, we found out that not many students at the International School in Lusaka had been in contact with anyone suffering from TB. Many in Zambia believe that it is a disease infecting poor people, or those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
We started our research on TB by visiting the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Lusaka where we met the HIV/TB service coordinators. We also visited a few neighbourhoods in Lusaka to meet with people. We learned that TB is a common airborne disease easily spread from person to person. It is caused by microscopic bacteria that usually harms the lungs, but may spread to other parts of the body. It is transmitted when infected people cough, sneeze, or spit without taking adequate precautions. The usual symptoms are chronic cough, fever, night sweats, chest pain, weight loss, and coughing up blood.
"Before I knew that I had TB, I used to have coughs with heavy sputum and I was experiencing sharp chest pains," said one of the patients we interviewed.
Cases of TB in Zambia have dramatically increased in the last ten years. TB is responsible for 16 per cent of adult Zambian deaths. From our partner school in India, we also learned that India accounts for nearly one fifth of global TB incidence.
The increase in TB cases can also be explained by the rising number of people infected with HIV/AIDS. When a patient has both HIV/AIDS and TB, they are said to be co-infected. Statistics show that 70 per cent of TB patients worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS. This is a startling statistic and it helped us understand that as HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system, people succumb to TB. At the clinic, we were told that if the patient was HIV-positive, there was more than a 50 per cent possibility that she or he would contract TB.
We met Catherine Nimuluwa, who is co-infected. She is an HIV/AIDS and TB counsellor working at the Chelstone Clinic in Lusaka. "I lost my husband to AIDS," she said. "I felt like it was the end of the world. I didn't want to be tested, but then all my family supported me."
When she discovered that she was infected with both diseases, she said she felt devastated. However, her family's unconditional love and support made her see the positive side of life. "I decided to go back to school and study counselling," she said with a big smile. "I'm HIV-positive with three children, and I still have another fifty years ahead of me." Catherine will run for Miss Stigma, a pageant aimed at dispelling the stigma surrounding co-infected people. As we listened to Catherine speak with confidence, we felt that she was the kind of person young people needed as a mentor at our school.
A peer educator at Matero Main Clinic in Lusaka revealed to us some problems seen recently in the treatment of TB, including drug-resistant strains, poor adherence to medical instruction by patients, and risky behaviours such as drinking excessive alcohol, smoking, and multiple sexual partners.
TB has also caused people to lose their jobs. Patients fear revealing to their employers that they have been infected. An interesting example was cited by an employee living in Linda neighbourhood. When he told his boss of his condition he was told go home and the next day the employee received a letter stating that he was fired. The employee told us that he was disturbed by this discrimination and felt stupid and useless.
We felt bad and very angry at the boss who fired the employee, especially since the Ministry of Health decided that all TB patients in Zambia should receive free treatment. From that day, we began to share our views about TB to students in our respective schools. We were saddened by this story but glad that the GreenContributor project is empowering students to identify problems in society and find solutions. We hope that people would not be afraid to reveal their TB condition, but instead be treated and cured. Another patient told us that when he realized he had TB symptoms, he went to be tested because he knew that TB was curable. He took his medication and, after seven months, was cured. He told his wife about it and the whole family was very supportive.
We interviewed the Minister of Education Dora Siliya. She said, "Education is key to help in reducing or eradicating diseases such as TB. This is why the government in trying to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by building 1,600 extra classrooms by 2015, which will take in over 500,000 more students."
This article is an effort by us to raise awareness and enlighten people on the effects of TB all around the world. We have seen that information is more widely available now than before, yet there is still some way to go. We would like to begin by sensitizing students in other schools. Thanks to GreenContributor, we have become the change agents in our communities. We now believe that every person, including students, can play a major role and impact our communities positively