By CELIA W. DUGGER
TB Patients Chafe Under Lockdown in South Africa
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa — The Jose Pearson TB Hospital here is like a prison for the sick. It is encircled by three fences topped with coils of razor wire to keep patients infected with lethal strains of tuberculosis from escaping.
But at Christmastime and again around Easter, dozens of them cut holes in the fences, slipped through electrified wires or pushed through the gates in a desperate bid to spend the holidays with their families. Patients have been tracked down and forced to return; the hospital has quadrupled the number of guards. Many patients fear they will get out of here only in a coffin.
“We’re being held here like prisoners, but we didn’t commit a crime,” Siyasanga Lukas, 20, who has been here since 2006, said before escaping last week. “I’ve seen people die and die and die. The only discharge you get from this place is to the mortuary.”
Struggling to contain a dangerous epidemic of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, known as XDR-TB, the South African government’s policy is to hospitalize those unlucky enough to have the disease until they are no longer infectious. Hospitals in two of the three provinces with the most cases — here in the Eastern Cape, as well as in the Western Cape — have sought court orders to compel the return of runaways.
The public health threat is grave. The disease spreads through the air when patients cough and sneeze. It is resistant to the most effective drugs. And in South Africa, where these resistant strains of tuberculosis have reached every province and prey on those whose immune systems are weakened by AIDS, it will kill many, if not most, of those who contract it.
As extensively drug-resistant TB rapidly emerges as a global threat to public health — one found in 45 countries — South Africa is grappling with a sticky ethical problem: how to balance the liberty of individual patients against the need to protect society.
It is a quandary that has recurred over the past century, not least in New York City, where uncooperative TB patients were confined to North Brother Island in the East River in the early 1900s and to Rikers Island in the 1950s.
In the early 1990s, when New York faced its own outbreak of drug-resistant TB, the city treated people as outpatients and locked them up in hospitals only as a last resort.
Most other countries are now treating drug-resistant TB on a voluntary basis, public health experts say. But health officials here contend that the best way to protect society is to isolate patients in TB hospitals. Infected people cannot be relied on to avoid public places, they say. And treating people in their homes has serious risks: Patients from rural areas often live in windowless shacks where families sleep jammed in a single room — ideal conditions for spreading the disease.
“XDR is like biological warfare,” said Dr. Bongani Lujabe, the chief medical officer at Jose Pearson hospital. “If you let it loose, you decimate a population, especially in poor communities with a high prevalence of H.I.V./AIDS.”
But other public health experts say overcrowded, poorly ventilated hospitals have themselves been a driving force in spreading the disease in South Africa. The public would be safer if patients were treated at home, they say, with regular monitoring by health workers and contagion-control measures for the family. Locking up the sick until death will also discourage those with undiagnosed cases from coming forward, most likely driving the epidemic underground.Some 563 people were confirmed with extensively drug-resistant TB last year in South Africa and started on treatment, compared with only 20 cases in the United States from 2000 through 2006. A third of those patients in South Africa died in 2007; more than 300 remained in hospitals.
Further complicating matters, South Africa’s provinces have taken different approaches to deciding how long to hospitalize people with XDR-TB. In KwaZulu-Natal, the other province with the most cases, the main hospital is discharging patients after six months of treatment, even if they remain infectious, to make room for new patients who have a better chance of being cured. The province is rapidly adding beds, part of a national expansion of hospital capacity for XDR-TB.When news of South Africa’s outbreak of extensively drug-resistant TB was announced in Toronto in 2006 at an international AIDS meeting, it sent shudders through the ranks of infectious-disease specialists. These virulent strains had rapidly killed 52 of 53 patients.
Drug resistance emerges in large part because health care systems too often have failed to ensure that patients successfully complete treatments with first- and second-line drugs, according to international health officials.
The medicines for ordinary TB here cost about $36 and take six to eight months to cure the patient. The drugs for XDR-TB cost about $7,000, and treatment lasts two years. At the start, patients endure four to six months of painful daily injections in the buttocks or thigh, a morning ritual at Jose Pearson that leaves faces scrunched up in agony. A 10-year-old boy whose mother recently died here of the disease rubbed cream into his backside to relieve the ache. He now lives on the XDR-TB ward as its solitary child, with no family around.
My comment: I know it sounds cruel, but I do think this is the best way for everybody. And I think it presents interesting problem to think over. Is it better to lock the diseased for the safety of the healthy, ignoring their rights or is it better to protect their rights and just deal with the situation. I'm sure everyone will opt for the first option. That is until he or she isn't infected.
For me, there should be a third option. Like keeping the infected in isolated rooms or at least putting them in rooms according to the degree of the infection. I don't know, it's hard to say what is best, but this treatment is preventing infected people from curing. Which surely breaks few fundamental human rights.
Not to mention that this facilities should be use to study the resistance of TB and the blood of both surviving and death. Just watching them die is useless. You have to take the best out of it. And the is what science is for-to take the best out of the worst and prevent it happening ever again.