Mkhize warns against neglecting TB victims’ plight amid Covid-19 pandemic
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By Samkelo Mtshali
Durban – Tuberculosis (TB) has to be given adequate attention alongside the challenges of dealing with the deadly coronavirus that continues to ravage the country, says Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Mkhize was speaking on Thursday during a webinar on “TB Political Advocacy’’, which was hosted to address the issue of sustaining TB services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“TB is the leading infectious killer in the world, with more than 10 million people being sick and 1.5 million dying of TB in 2019. TB is curable and preventable, yet is still a major health problem in lower- and middle-income countries, it is a pandemic that the world has for a long time battled to contain,” said Mkhize.
He said the Covid-19 pandemic continues to pose a global threat to the well-being of citizens, but while it is causing severe disruptions in services and economies as well as shifts in priorities of health services, there continues to be a need for a better and more efficient response to TB.
“In South Africa, we have noted that since the national lockdown started on the 26th of March 2020, people were not accessing health facilities for various reasons. This resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of people screened and tested for TB,” he said.
Additionally, he said the lack of access to health facilities translated into a 40% reduction in TB notifications between March and June 2020. Mkhize said the implication of this was the ongoing transmission of TB in communities and an increase in TB mortality.
“There are challenges which we have had to face during the lockdown which include the diversion of health workers, including community health workers, data capturers, etcetra to support the Covid-19 response.
“Covid-19 and TB screening was not integrated. Patients who were diagnosed with TB were not all started on treatment and patients who were on treatment defaulted due to various factors while TB medicine stock-outs were experienced during the lockdown in Asia and Europe, compromising the supply chain,” said Mkhize.
He emphasised that the focus now needs to be placed on reversing the losses incurred in the TB care cascade during the lockdown, bringing the screening, testing, treatment and retention to pre-Covid-19 levels.
“We need to scale up strategies and innovations to increase TB testing and treatment and incorporate the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 response, taking into consideration the fact that Covid-19 is still going to remain with us for some time.
“We still need to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected and cushioned from the effects of TB and the catastrophic impact of Covid-19. More effort needs to go towards strengthening health systems and ensuring that they’re prepared for future pandemics,” Mkhize said.