The dangers, fears and consequences of new, more powerful strains of tuberculosis were revealed in South Africa this week. More than 30 people suffering from Extreme or Multi-Drug Resistant TB ran away from a Port Elizabeth hospital so they could visit their families over the Easter holiday. Most have since returned to Jose Pearson Hospital.
Reporter Delia Robertson is following the story. From Johannesburg, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the incident, which began last weekend.
“The day before, there was a demonstration at the hospital, where about 60 patients took off their protective masks and threatened the guards. And the next day there was a similar episode and during that episode 33 patients slipped passed the guards,” she says.
Robertson says the protests were triggered by the strict medical procedures needed to deal with the disease. “In South Africa, patients with MDR and XDR TB, that is Multi-Drug Resistant or Extremely Drug Resistant TB, are compelled to remain in the hospital for the duration of their treatment. They are kept in isolation and it’s a very debilitating situation for them. And the patients wanted to go home and see their families over the Easter weekend.”
She says they knew the risks of spreading TB. “Yes, indeed, patients are informed, but it is difficult. As one practitioner said, people become desperate…. There was just a case of a young woman who was put into the hospital within a couple of weeks of giving birth and wasn’t able to see the baby. And eventually when her own mother was allowed to bring the baby to see her, she wasn’t allowed to touch her. She had to see her child at a distance. It creates desperation in people because they don’t know when they’re going to go home. They don’t know when the treatment is going to be over,” she says.
In Multi-Drug Resistant TB, there’s a chance doctors can cure the patient over time using a variety of drugs. But Extremely Drug Resistant TB presents an entirely different problem. “The chances are that those people will never be cured,” she says. The situation is made worse if people infected with either of the stronger forms of TB are already infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, resulting in weakened immune systems.
Robertson says the situation creates a conflict between civil liberties and national security, since people may be put into isolation for an indefinite period. “It’s a real problem, especially in a country like South Africa, where we are just so newly a democratic country. And where people view human rights with such high regard because of the years and years and centuries when human rights were on the back burner…. So, it’s a real conundrum because you have to protect the general population. You have to try and treat people. But until they come up with cures that actually enable the people to improve and eventually become well, it’s a very difficult situation and they will have to be isolated,” she says.