Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi unveiled the biggest of these GeneXpert machines, which can process 48 TB tests in a two-hour session, at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital in Durban during a World TB Day function yesterday.
South Africa is the first African country to get these machines and only the fourth outside of the USA. USAID assisted government to pay for the machines, which cost a total of R53-million.
Nine smaller GeneXpert machines that can process 16 tests at a time, have been sent to each province and installed in their TB ‘hot spots’, said Motsoaledi.
A further 20 machines that can do four tests at once are going to used in hot spots around the country, including at Tugela Ferry where the deadly extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB was first discovered.
Dr Motsoaled described the machines as a ‘revolution’, saying that these were the ‘bazookas’ in the war against TB.
The GeneXpert machines are easy to use and 98 percent accurate. The machines have all been linked to the National Health Laboratory Service’s central computers, which can monitor whether they are being used properly and get results as they are processed.
One in five South African TB patients have drug-resistant TB, thanks to years of inadequate monitoring and control of TB patients. Drug-resistant TB is much harder and more expensive to treat, with patients needing daily injections for up to 18 months.
In 2009, less than half of the 9000 patients diagnosed with drug-resistant TB actually started treatment. KwaZulu-Natal’s TB head, Bruce Margot, said many of these patients died in the weeks they spent waiting for their results to come back from laboratories.
‘The GeneXpert is a big breakthrough because we can save patients lives by starting them on treatment immediately,’ said Margot.
However, Motsoaledi warned that technology alone could not win the war against TB. For this reason, he also launched a campaign involving house visits to homes of TB patients in areas where there was a high TB rate.
‘We need to change the practice of waiting for people to come to be tested at hospitals,’ said Dr Motsoaledi. ‘This is passive, reactive and ineffective.
‘Today, we are launching an accelerated, intensified case-finding campaign. Teams comprising a nurse, counselor and community healthworkers are going to visit households in communities with high TB case loads to test people for TB.’
The teams would also screen children for immunisations, offer HIV tests and check that pregnant women were attending ante-natal clinics.
‘This has already started in Ethekwini, which has screened 4 350 people, found 1 300 that have TB susceptibility,’ said the minister.
By next TB Day, countrywide teams aim to visit 200 000 households.
‘This is not a once-off campaign but a feature of life in South Africa from now one. The GeneXpert will not do miracles. It is hospital-centric and curative. If we visit 200 000 households in 12 months, this should begin to turn the tide against TB.’