Students and staff at tertiary institutions at risk of TB

On 24 March 2015, the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) will mark World TB Day and invigorate the sector’s contribution to TB control.

TB is a preventable and curable disease. Yet, South Africa is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to have the world’s third largest TB burden and an exceptionally high rate of multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB cases.

“These drug resistant strains are much more difficult and expensive to treat. They also pose a more serious threat of infection to those who are in close contact with patients and may lead to failed treatment and mortality,” explains Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS.

“It is concerning that we managed cases of MDR and XDR TB on several campuses during the course of 2014. HEAIDS now recognises that institutions of higher learning are not only badly affected by HIV, but that the TB epidemic also has the potential to impact negatively on the acheivement of our educational outcomes. The key to preventing this is to educate people about TB symptoms, to intensify our screening efforts and to ensure our students and staff members have good access to TB treatment,” says Dr Ahluwalia.

HEAIDS will initiate a major TB screening and treatment drive at a World TB Day event hosted at Dr Kenneth Kaunda District of the North West province on 24 March.

WHO estimates that South Africa records 500 000 TB cases a year. According to the Department of Health, as many as 73% of patients with TB also have HIV, as the presence of HIV weakens the immune system and makes it less able to fight infections, including TB.

HEAIDS implements the First Things First programme for HIV counselling and testing (HCT), TB and STIs screening and treatment for some two million students and staff across 429 campuses at public universities and colleges.

In 2014, First Things First tested 100 000 students and learners for HIV and screened over 90 000 for TB in the higher education sector and referred many for care and support.

“When we started the 2015 First Things First earlier in March in Soweto, in just one day, close to 600 students underwent HCT. Those who reported TB symptoms were referred for immediate testing and treatment, where necessary,” says Dr Ahluwalia.

Dr Ahluwalia noted that while all age groups are at risk, TB is most prevalent among young adults, including the student population. “We are asking that all young people should screen for TB once a year because it is a highly infectious airborne infection that can be transmitted in classrooms of colleges and universities.

“HEAIDS is devoted to promoting better health. The cornerstone of this effort is to prevent HIV infections among young people and to detect and treat other infections. TB is a debilitating condition which cannot be ignored, and so in acting to mitigate HIV we also take action on TB as the two unfortunately go hand in hand,” explains Dr Ahluwalia.

HEAIDS works with government, funders and service providers to deliver a comprehensive national approach that integrates access to TB treatment, care and support interventions across the higher education and training sector.

“HIV mitigation programmes and structures are used to support this integrated approach, as ultimately HIV and TB adversely affect educational outcomes – including access, retention and achievement," concluded Dr Ahluwalia.