10 things to know about TB in South Africa
Tuberculosis (TB) is still a crisis in South Africa. Here are 10 quick facts about the state of TB in South Africa.
- Tuberculosis (TB) remains a crisis in South Africa. It is the top cause of death indicated on death reports. There are over 400 000 cases of TB in South Africa every year. TB cases are slowly coming down, but it is not happening nearly fast enough.
- One of the biggest problems with TB is that we do not diagnose people fast enough and get them on to treatment fast enough. This is bad for the health of people with TB, but also contributes to the spread of TB in our communities. Two potential solutions are active case finding (ACF) and contact tracing. ACF is when healthcare workers or community healthcare workers go out and look for people with TB. Contact tracing is when we trace the family and/or work contacts of someone with TB and then test them for TB as well. Most experts agree that government must invest more in ACF and contact tracing, but unfortunately government has not shown much ambition in this regard. This lack of ambition is probably because government does not want to employ more people.
- Another critical problem in our response to TB is the poor infection control measures in most public spaces. In taxis, or in waiting rooms at clinics, or at Home Affairs offices, often the windows are not opened and all the people present breathe the same air. In addition, many prisons are overcrowded and create ideal conditions for the transmission of TB. Here too, government has not shown much ambition in dealing with the problem.
- There are over 20 000 cases of drug-resistant TB (DR TB) in South Africa per
year at the moment. It appears that the rates of DR TB are going up – something which surely constitutes a public health emergency. DR TB is much more difficult and more expensive to treat than normal TB. There is also evidence suggesting that most people with DR TB did not develop the drug resistance while being treated for normal TB, but were infected with TB that was already drug-resistant.
- Until recently, treatment for multiple drug-resistant TB (MDR TB) took two years, and often resulted in severe side effects such as deafness. However, the World Health Organisation recently recommended a new nine-month regimen with fewer side effects for the treatment of MDR TB. South Africa is in the process of introducing this new, shorter regimen.
- While the new nine-month MDR TB regimen is an improvement on previous regimens, it still entails a large number of pills and injections, and has is associated with substantial side effects. The good news, however, is that a number of trials are under way to test even shorter regimens that will contain no injections, and hopefully will have even fewer side effects. We should start seeing results from these trials in 2019.
- Extensively drug resistant TB (XDR TB) is the most difficult form of TB to treat, and over 70% of people with XDR TB in South Africa die within five years. There is good news, however: an ongoing trial in South Africa called Nix-TB is showing much higher cure rates for XDR TB than we’ve ever seen before. In the Nix-TB trial, people are treated with three drugs: bedaquiline, pretomanid and linezolid.
- While bedaquiline and linezolid are already registered and available in South Africa, pretomanid is not yet registered. Pretomanid is not being developed by a pharmaceutical company, but by a non-profit called the TB Alliance. Donors should work with the TB Alliance to make pretomanid available under compassionate-use concessions, so that people in South Africa with XDR TB can access the drug.
- People living with HIV are at higher risk of contracting TB. For this reason, people are given isoniazid preventative therapy (IPT) to prevent the development of TB. For years IPT treatment rates in South Africa were very low, but recent figures suggest that many more people are now receiving IPT and being protected against TB.
- IPT works well and can be taken for six months or a year, or even longer. It consists of a pill you must take every day. However, there is a new form of TB-preventative therapy called 3HP, which consists of isoniazid and another drug called rifapentine. The 3HP regimen involves taking pills only once a week, for a period of 12 weeks. If ongoing trials of 3HP in South Africa are successful, 3HP will replace IPT at some point in the next five years.