No child should die from a curable disease

By Nigel Spence

Image: ChildFund (supplied)
Image: ChildFund (supplied)
Tuberculosis (TB) was once virtually wiped out from the developed world – yet today this modern plague is killing thousands of children each year in the Asia-Pacific region, and leaving many more with lifelong disabilities, writes ChildFund Australia CEO Nigel Spence.

Grace* is 10 years old and battling tuberculosis for the second time in her life.

The young girl arrived at a small rural clinic in Papua New Guinea’s Central Province earlier this year so weak and wasted she couldn’t walk. The clinic is a basic shack, typical of many across PNG. There are just six staff to provide support for around 15,000 people, some of them travelling up to six hours by boat for medical attention.

Grace spent two months at the clinic receiving daily injections for her TB. “I thought I was going to die,” she says. “It was painful and hurt the most in my neck.”

Grace is one of 7,000 children in Papua New Guinea who will contract TB this year.

Tragically, one in 10 of these children will die. For a disease that is easily prevented and treated, this is simply unacceptable. No child should die from a curable disease.

Children account for 26 per cent of detected TB cases in PNG but this is likely to be just a fraction of the real story. In PNG, as in other TB-endemic nations, there are formidable challenges to the diagnosis and treatment of paediatric cases, with the disease frequently misdiagnosed or overlooked.

Many children do survive, but with their bodies and minds profoundly affected after the bacteria infiltrates their bones or brains. Conditions like TB meningitis can quickly leave small children damaged for life.

Children who contract TB not only face serious health issues but can lose out on months, or even years, of education. Without any social safety nets, parents who spend time caring for sick children can struggle to make ends meet.

While Australia is fortunate to have one of the lowest incidences of TB in the world, we cannot ignore the fact that an estimated 6.2 million cases – two-thirds of the global TB burden – occur in the Asia-Pacific. In PNG alone, 9,000 people have died from TB over the past three years. By comparison, the Ebola virus, which galvanised such international fear and concern, killed 11,300 people globally in the same period.

Finding effective solutions to address the TB epidemic is not impossible, but requires far greater levels of cooperation, funding and political will.

Broadly, the social and economic conditions that perpetuate the spread of the disease must be addressed. Poverty, poor nutrition, inadequate housing and overcrowding in urban areas provide the ideal conditions for TB to thrive.

It is vital that PNG’s health system is strengthened to address the shortage of skilled health workers. This would enable a more proactive case-finding approach with health workers going into communities to screen for TB, ensuring children and family members are tested, diagnosed and treated earlier.

NGOs like ChildFund have a critical role to play in supporting children and communities on the frontline of the TB epidemic. ChildFund is among the organisations training and equipping local health workers in PNG to detect and treat TB, as well as raising awareness of the disease at the wider community level.

Along with a new report looking at the devastating impact of TB on children, ChildFund has launched a fundraising appeal to train more community-based health volunteers in PNG’s remote villages. These health volunteers can support children and family members through the long courses of treatment required to cure TB.

For children like Grace, ensuring they take their full course of treatment is essential. TB drugs can have a rapid effect on how people feel, and so they stop taking the tablets. However, unless they are taken for the full duration, the TB bug is given the chance to fight back and progress into the more deadly, drug-resistant form of the disease.

Australia is well positioned to help tackle the TB epidemic and protect at-risk children and families in our region. By providing support through increased, well-targeted aid and leveraging our significant research capability to develop new vaccines and drugs, we can help countries like PNG with TB control, and ultimately eliminate TB as a public health risk.

Nigel Spence is the CEO of ChildFund Australia. Read ChildFund’s report on TB here. Donate to help children and communities battling TB in PNG here.

*Name changed to protect privacy



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