Over 200 children die in our country every day before the age of five. While malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, diarrhea and pneumonia are cited as major childhood killers, tuberculosis rarely gets a mention.
Because children, unlike adults, rarely transmit the disease, public health programmes typically under-diagnose, under-treat, or omit children with TB altogether, making it one of the most neglected, yet deadly, childhood diseases.
TB in children presents differently to adults, and their symptoms can often be confused with other common childhood diseases. Yet insufficient data and medical research has left doctors with outdated methods of diagnosis and treatment, unsuited to children’s needs. It makes dealing with the disease difficult and painful, especially for young children and babies.
Compounding this, is the growing presence of drug resistant TB amongst children, where more and more patients are being infected with strains of bacteria that do not respond to the normal TB treatment. But, the medication against drug resistant TB is not formulated for children, so doctors are forced to use the same drugs prescribed to adults, and estimate an appropriate smaller dose. This treatment is long and incredibly toxic, and can cause severe side effects, like permanent deafness, loss of eyesight and kidney damage.
Many children who do have drug resistant TB are isolated in hospitals for the duration of their treatment, which can be as long as 18 months. Taken from their families and homes, forced to wear masks, and only allowed limited physical contact with others, is a traumatic experience for any child.
TB is a disease of society and the burden carried by our children reflects many underlying problems within South Africa. Malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and poverty, put them at higher risk of TB infection. But, in the face of this silent epidemic, they have been left vulnerable and unprotected.
SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: SABC 3 21.00
DATE OF BROADCAST: 22 MARCH 2012