Johannesburg — As the world observes World TB Day on March 24 to raise awareness of the fight against tuberculosis, South Africa is struggling to conquer its top killer. Activists say more focus is needed on poor communities as drug resistant strains take hold and wreak havoc. With 80 percent of the country's young adults already infected with TB, health experts say there is no time to lose.
This year South Africa commemorates World Tuberculosis Day under the theme "finding, treating and curing TB in hard to reach communities."
The World Health Organization said 482,000 of South Africa's 50 million people contracted TB every year and it wa the leading cause of death.
Of the 505,803 people who died in South Africa in 2011, 12 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women died from TB.
This has AIDS activists and organizations worried - since AIDS patients are extremely vulnerable to TB. And South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.
Peter Mabulane, Community Services Manager at the South African National Tuberculosis Association, said poverty was the culprit when it came to accessing information and treatment for this curable disease.
"If you check the poverty stricken line in South Africa, that's where you find a lot of TB patients because they don't have good nutrition, they can't afford this, they are squatters. For you to win the battle against TB one of the main things is that you need to live a healthy living style, you need to eat proper food and we don't have that," he said.
Bongie Ndlovu is 39 and has been living for the last 10 years in an impoverished informal settlement south of Johannesburg. Her shack, at the foot of a hill, is surrounded by rotting and stinking garbage. She and her neighbors spend days and nights in the dark and in damp shacks due to poor ventilation and many have contracted TB as a result.
She said, "many people here will tell you they do not have TB, but you will see it if you look carefully. They are sick because of the filthy living conditions."
Dr. Ahmed Mohamed has operated a private surgery practice for years at Bekkersdal - one of the areas hit by violent protests in South Africa because of poor living conditions.
He said unless the government decentralized TB treatment centers to poor communities and improved general living conditions, the fight against TB was a lost cause.
"You can see we are surrounded by sewage overflows, water waste overflows, rubbish not being collected. It's all unhygienic and authorities are not listening," he said.
Mabulane said unless more resources were put into South Africa's sprawling, impoverished townships, the country would fail to reach the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing TB deaths by 50 percent in 2015.
He also proposed a new drug regimen and research to reduce the number of pills taken by TB patients each day.
"Five pills every day for six months, imagine if it was one pill everyday. Then we win the war. We're saying nutrition, healthy living style, community mobilization, then we win the whole war," he said.
Mabulane argued that with the Multi-Drug Resistant TB also taking a toll on the country's population, delays in taking action would only prove catastrophic for the country.