Beside the great Lake Kivu, beneath the shadow of an enormous volcano, the Rwanda-DRC border divides the neighboring cities of Gisenyi and Goma. As the day begins, the predominant impression is one of movement, as people walk in either direction through the customs checkpoint, carrying giant bunches of green banana, stacks of nesting plastic chairs, anything that is tradable. They form an unbroken stream of humanity crossing to and fro, the tall border signboards towering overhead.
The quest for an accurate, timely and affordable medical diagnosis remains elusive in many developing countries. In East Africa, laboratories are often poorly staffed; ill-equipped; and lack quality systems. Obsolete equipment clogs up limited space. Clinicians often resort to presumptive diagnoses rather than requesting lab confirmations. Individuals suffering from infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, run the risk of going undetected and transmitting the disease to others, or being misdiagnosed, which in turn leads to compromised care and higher health care costs.
Many laboratories are not adequately prepared to respond during public health emergencies, yet their services are critical to detecting new pathogens and containing disease outbreaks.
World Laboratory Accreditation Day, observed recently, offers a good opportunity to draw attention to the critical role of laboratories in health, and the importance of accreditation in promoting quality. Accurate and reliable laboratory services are critical for conducting clinical diagnosis, guiding treatment, and responding to disease outbreaks. There’s a growing recognition of the importance of laboratory services, and several important initiatives have been launched, including the WHO-AFRO Stepwise Laboratory Improvement Process towards Accreditation (SLIPTA).
The scaling up of voluntary medical male circumcision, particularly in high HIV prevalence settings, is a highly cost-effective intervention to fight the epidemic—randomized controlled trials have found a 60% protective effect against HIV for men who became circumcised.
But, the supply of this medical service is just one part of the picture. Without active involvement from individuals and communities to deal with social and cultural factors that influence service acceptability, the demand for this common surgical procedure will be low.
Indeed, on a recent visit to Botswana, a country with high HIV prevalence and low levels of male circumcision, my World Bank colleagues and I had a good discussion with the National HIV/AIDS Commission about ways to address the low uptake of voluntary, safe male circumcision services in spite of a well-funded program by the government. It was obvious to all that if the demand for, and uptake of, this service were not strengthened through creative mechanisms that foster acceptance, ownership, and active participation of individuals and community organizations, the program would not help control the spread of HIV through increased funding of facilities, equipment, and staff alone.
So, what do we need to do to ensure that need, demand, utilization, and supply of services are fully aligned to improve health conditions?
Il y a quelque temps, je suis parti en mission visiter un nouvel hôpital au Lesotho. Je savais que cet établissement était destiné à accueillir des patients atteints de tuberculose multi-résistante et je sais aussi le lourd tribut que la co-infection VIH-tuberculose fait payer au pays. Je m’attendais donc à ce que les caractéristiques démographiques des patients correspondent à celle du VIH : essentiellement des patients jeunes, et de plus en plus de femmes.
Mais je n’étais pas préparé à voir deux familles entières, jeunes et vieux, hommes, femmes et enfants, confinées ensemble pour un certain temps, sous la surveillance de professionnels de santé veillant à ce que tous prennent bien leurs doses quotidiennes de médicaments.
Hace un tiempo, formé parte de una misión que debía visitar un nuevo hospital en Lesotho. Me advirtieron de antemano que el propósito de estas instalaciones era atender a las personas que sufren de tuberculosis (TB) multirresistente a los medicamentos, y conociendo la inmensa carga de coinfecciones de VIH y TB en el país, esperaba que el perfil demográfico de los pacientes fuera similar al del VIH: en su mayoría jóvenes y cada vez más mujeres.
Para lo que no estaba preparado era para encontrarme con dos familias enteras —jóvenes y viejos, hombres, mujeres y niños— confinados juntos en el futuro inmediato para ser observados por trabajadores de la salud mientras toman sus medicamentos diariamente.
A while ago, I was part of a mission to visit a new hospital in Lesotho. Warned in advance that this facility was intended to treat people with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB)– and knowing the huge burden of HIV-TB co-infection in the country—I was expecting the patients’ demographic to match the profile of HIV: largely young and increasingly female.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sight of two entire families—young and old, men, women and children—all confined together for the foreseeable future, to be monitored by health workers as they take their daily drugs.
Ten year old Vibha Kumari looks like any Delhi school girl. Except that a clean but well- worn old handkerchief masks her young face. For Vibha has multi-drug resistant TB - or MDR-TB - caused by a strain of bacteria that has developed resistance to the first line of antibiotics.
Vibha’s is a classic case of drug-resistant TB. Two years ago, when she had a terrible cough that just wouldn’t go away, she was treated by a village doctor at home in Bihar. When she didn’t get any better even after eight months of treatment, the family moved to Delhi where her father sold drinking water on the teeming streets of the city.
Moving into a one-room tenement in an overcrowded urban slum – where large families share small badly-ventilated rooms in conditions that are ripe for the infection to spread –Vibha was tested for TB. When MDR TB was found, probably as a result of inappropriate treatment in the village, she was put on the second line of drugs for a two-year course of treatment.
“Tuberculosis was a silent killer a few years ago,” says Rogers, a community health worker at the Kangemi Health Center, which assists people living with TB to receive effective treatment in a sprawling settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Community health workers like Rogers are a vital link between patients and medical providers and are well respected and trusted. They educate, enlighten, and empower patients and people in the wider community. They work with the local area chiefs in mobilizing communities in the fight against TB. Rogers proudly notes that he actively identifies TB cases, provides home-based care, and traces people defaulting on treatment, all critical elements in managing TB at the community level.
Detection and management of TB are critical in Africa, where roughly a quarter million TB deaths were reported in 2010. The continent accounts for about one-quarter of the global TB burden and is facing challenges in meeting the Millennium Development Goal of reducing 1990 TB mortality rates by half by 2015. However, there is also reason for hope on TB control in Africa, as seen in communities like Kangemi. In Kenya, with support from government and partners, including the World Bank (Health Sector Support Project, Total War Against HIV/AIDS Project, East Africa Public Health Laboratory Networking Project), activities are underway to strengthen the availability of drugs, channel funds directly to lower level health centers , and improve access to the latest diagnostic tools for detecting TB. “The state-of-the-art diagnostics will go a long way to turn the tide on this pandemic,” notes Lucy Chesire, Executive Director of the TB Action Group in Nairobi. “Patients will no longer wait months to get results.”
2012 is off to a sobering start for those of us in the global health community, against a backdrop of continuing global financial volatility coupled with complex reforms at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. New research from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) shows a slowdown—and perhaps a plateauing—of the historical growth in global health funding to which we have been accustomed during the past decade. This new reality is, rightly, leading to questions about whether substantial—if not radical—changes are needed in the highly fragmented global health ecosystem. And yet, at the same time, there are signs of new initiatives.
I believe the slowdown in global health funding requires adjusting our expectations in the coming years. Last fall, after participating in a number of inspiring discussions during the UN General Assembly, I reflected about each one of the critical global health priorities to which we have all pledged our support in recent years: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for nutrition, child and maternal health, and HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria, as well as non-communicable diseases. It struck me that while most of these health interventions are destined to help the same mother or child, we have created very separate initiatives and institutions to deliver on each. We have been able to elevate the awareness and commitments for each of these priorities, but now the challenge is, like Humpty Dumpty, how do we now put them all back together again?
Less than one hour from the burgeoning, cosmopolitan boutiques and coffee shops of Lima’s chic San Isidro district, Carmen shares a one-room, patched-up wooden shack with her in-laws and her three small children in the outskirts of Ventanilla, an impoverished area north of Lima.
She is distraught, one side of her face paralyzed from stress as she faces the unimaginable: eviction from her humble dwelling and the possibility of tuberculosis striking again her two year old, and herself too.