LIMA (Reuters) - Now halfway through his treatment for tuberculosis, William Campos, 49, is starting to imagine a healthy life again.
“I want to walk again, to work again. I want to get up in the morning, get on a bus and head to the countryside,” Campos said from his bed beneath a sheet-draped window in the shantytown Carabayllo, one of the poorest districts in Peru’s capital, Lima.
A clothes vendor before falling ill, Campos is one of at least 30,000 Peruvians infected with tuberculosis, an ancient disease that killed 1.8 million globally last year - more than AIDS-related and malaria deaths combined.
Campos is also part of a low-budget pilot program that aims to eradicate tuberculosis from the poorest corners of the world, where it continues to thrive despite being curable.
In places like Villa Esperanza, or Village of Hope, a neighborhood in Carabayllo where clusters of pastel-colored homes cling to dusty hills, the problem is inadequate health services to help patients follow through with treatment, which takes six months to a couple years.
Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based non-profit that works with Peru’s health ministry, offers a simple solution. It trains community volunteers to tend to tuberculosis patients in their homes, making sure they take medicine daily and helping them navigate the public health bureaucracy.
The volunteers, nearly all women already active in the community, have proven better at finding people with tuberculosis than white-coated health professionals, said Dr. Leonid Lecca, executive director of PIH in Peru.
Guadalupe Quispe, 61, has treated some eight patients as a volunteer in her neighborhood, where the stigma of tuberculosis can cost people jobs and relationships.
The position does not pay, but Quispe said it has other rewards. She pointed to a small house on a slanted street where she once persuaded a young woman coughing up blood to get treatment. The woman would have likely died otherwise.
“After she got better, she went to school. And now she’s a nurse. When I think of her, I feel happy,” Quispe said.
So far, no tuberculosis patient in PIH’s year-and-a-half-old program has dropped out, a key challenge in slowing the spread of drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis that result from unfinished treatment, said Lecca.
Peru is home to the highest rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in the Americas, but one in four patients in the Andean country give up on treatment because the medicine needed to kill the bacteria have such harrowing side effects, Lecca said.
“Some medicines change the color of your skin, some cause bouts of psychosis,” Lecca said. “Patients need to be accompanied through this process.”
Quispe visits Campos every day. She has helped bring a wheelchair ramp to his home and is not shy about badgering him to eat properly.
“Mrs. Guadalupe’s my right hand,” Campos said, beaming at her, teary-eyed, as she helped him sit up to test his strength ahead of back surgery. The tuberculosis has eaten away part of Campos’ spine.
“I used to cry constantly. The pain was so unbearable. I even thought about killing myself. But thanks to Mrs. Guadalupe I have hope to push through this,” said Campos.
Photos By Mariana Bazo, Text By Mitra Taj; Editing by Cynthia Osterman