MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

It’s vital to prioritise TB preventive therapy for almost a million South Africans – right now

By Ivy Apolisi and Colin Pfaff 16 February 2021

Health promotion is urgently needed to increase public awareness around TB and the importance of TB prevention. (Photo: clinicallabmanager.com/Wikipedia)

If tuberculosis is to be eradicated by 2035, enhanced strategies for preventing close contacts of TB patients from developing the disease are urgently needed as an essential service in the healthcare system.

The results of a 2018 national TB prevalence survey were released on 5 February 2021, showing that there are 390,000 people living with TB in South Africa. 

With an average household size of 3.3 people, this means that 897,000 people – in all likelihood more, due to the impact of Covid-19 on TB services – were exposed to TB in the household. It is clear that enhanced strategies for preventing close contacts of TB patients from contracting the disease are urgently needed.

TB prevention is a major leg of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) strategy to “End TB” by 2035. One of the strategies recommended by the WHO is the provision of TB preventive treatment (TPT) to those who are at high risk of developing TB disease, as studies show the effectiveness of TPT in preventing TB disease ranges from 60% to 90%, and protection can last many years. 

At the United Nations High-Level Meeting on TB in New York in 2018, world leaders committed to providing TPT to at least 30 million people by 2022, including giving TPT to 20 million people who live in the same houses as individuals with clinically diagnosed TB disease. 

We are very far from reaching this target. In the years since the UN meeting, only six million people have been initiated on TPT. To meet the 2022 target, the Stop TB Partnership estimates that more than six million people would have needed to access TPT in 2020 alone. This did not happen. 

Why are we failing? The challenges are multifaceted, but TB prevention programmes piloted by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape and Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal reveal some important implementation lessons.

Important lessons

In Khayelitsha, MSF launched a pilot programme in 2017 that set out to screen for TB and follow up adolescents and children who had been exposed to drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) in their households, so that we would be able to respond quickly if these individuals did in fact develop DR-TB. We chose to focus on older children and adolescents, because only 8% of the estimated 25,000 children and adolescents who do become sick with DR-TB each year are diagnosed and started on treatment. 

Accessing this group was an extremely difficult task, and ultimately our programme was only able to enrol 10% of eligible participants. We hit snags in both households and clinics. 

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block was the fact that we seldom found older children and adolescents at home – they tended to be at school or out with friends. Those we did find generally needed to be accompanied to the clinic by their parent or guardian, requiring the parent or guardian to take a day off from work. 

Few were willing to do this. Those who did agree to go to the clinic faced the additional barrier of long clinic queues, and clinic staff working under extreme pressure who, as a result, prioritise curative services over preventative services like TPT. 

In March, with South Africa in Covid-19 lockdown, we tried again. This time our approach was home-based, with MSF teams conducting clinical assessments of the exposed children at their homes. We were also able to offer TPT this time around, made possible by the publication of new national guidelines in 2019

These significantly expand the eligibility criteria for TPT to include all DR-TB contacts considered to be at high risk of developing TB disease, including children and adolescents. 

Earlier, to address barriers at the clinic level, we had identified specific TB champions – clinic doctors with a passion for TB treatment – who were more than happy that we refer individuals to them for TPT. 

The Covid-19 lockdown also meant that schools were shut and therefore a greater number of older children and adolescents were at home, as were their parents and guardians. 

All of these factors contributed to the programme being successful as a way to diagnose TB among household contacts, possibly preventing more than 79 vulnerable individuals in Khayelitsha from becoming sick. 

The lockdown has now eased, and although children have not yet returned to school full-time, the challenge of finding people at home has already returned, underscoring the need for modified strategies to avoid the dissolution of this service.  

In Eshowe, a mere 7% to 25% of eligible adults received TPT between 2018 and 2020, while only 1% of eligible children under the age of five received TPT in 2020. 

The usual challenges are compounded by the realities of the rural setting, with many service users living among dramatic hills and deep valleys far from their nearest clinic. 

In 2019 we asked healthcare workers in Eshowe and Mbongolwane why they didn’t prescribe TPT. They told us they were not certain what length of TPT regimens to prescribe, as there was a perception that different guidelines advise different treatment durations. They also reported not always knowing which groups to target for TPT and that clinics often ran out of Isoniazid, one of the antibiotics given to prevent TB. 

However, recently enhanced efforts to find “missing” TB cases provide an opportunity to improve the provision of TPT. 

Interventions launched by the department of health and MSF in Eshowe and Mbongolwane in KwaZulu-Natal include the placement of TB screening officers at clinics, to increase screening and diagnosis of TB patients and elicit contacts for all patients with a positive TB diagnosis. 

Community-based teams then perform the contact tracing through home visits. If contacts are eligible for TPT, they can receive it at small community-based hubs for TB/HIV services. 

These decentralised hubs save service users a great deal of travel expense and queue time. MSF Eshowe also deploys TB ambassadors (volunteers who have previously been treated for TB or have family members who were diagnosed and treated for TB) to communities to conduct education on TB-related topics, including TPT. 

TB ambassadors are key in identifying patients who are potentially eligible for TPT, and they can also assist in ensuring they maintain treatment.  

If TPT is to be successfully rolled out in Khayelitsha, Eshowe and other TB-affected communities, the health system needs to incorporate strategies that make TB prevention easier to access. This can be possible by involving community health workers to offer services in communities and even homes, or establishing after-hours services for groups who work or attend school. 

Health promotion is also urgently needed to increase public awareness around TB and the importance of TB prevention, including TPT. 

Sadly, at present, TPT is not prioritised as an essential service in the healthcare system. To save more lives this needs to urgently change. DM/MC

Ivy Apolisi is a nurse working for MSF in Khayelitsha. Dr Colin Pfaff is MSF’s project manager in Khayelitsha.

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