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India drafts housewives to battle tuberculosis

BURARI, India (Reuters Life!) - In colourful saris, five housewives staged a street play in the outskirts of New Delhi about tuberculosis, an age-old disease that India can’t seem to shake off and which kills 370,000 people a year.

Wagging her forefinger at the other amateur actresses, Lalita Satish snapped: “You must not be afraid. You have to go see a doctor and take your medicine regularly.”

TB is such a deep scourge in India because patients fail to complete the regular six to 12 months course of treatment, either due to side effects or a careless attitude towards their health.

But this comes with a serious risk, as they may develop drug resistance and require stronger medications the next time round, which may be too expensive or simply unavailable.

“The key problem is motivating people to complete the treatment. The first thing they encounter are side effects like vomiting, jaundice, rashes, bloody urine or weak eyesight. It’s very strong medicine they are taking,” explained Sapna Naveen, a doctor with the non-government group, TB Alert India.

“They are not educated to see the long-term effects of abandoning treatment, they don’t understand resistance. Rates of default are high.”

India has 1.8 million new TB cases each year, or one-fifth of the world’s new cases, making it the country with the highest burden in the world.

Many of them have sputum-positive pulmonary TB, meaning they can each infect up to 15 other people a year if they are not detected, and treated.

“TB in India has to do with nutrition. It’s more serious for women as they neglect their health. If men are sick, they would go to the doctor, but not women or girls,” Naveen said.

TB Alert India runs DOTS, or directly-observed treatment short-course centres, small clinics where drugs are kept and where healthcare workers can advise, and monitor, patients taking their medicine.

The organisation is also trying to educate villagers about TB and the importance of treatment adherence through volunteers, like the thespian housewives.

“I saw TB symptoms in two villagers and referred them to a DOTS centre in April. I want to do something for our community, many people neglect their health,” said volunteer housewife Reeta Premprakash.