Indian Red Cross volunteers bring the human touch to the fight against tuberculosis

Published: 23 March 2012 13:18 CET
Shera, with Prem the volunteer from the Indian Red Cross who has been following him during the whole duration of its treatment.
Shera, with Prem the volunteer from the Indian Red Cross who has been following him during the whole duration of its treatment.

By Benoit Carpentier

In India, tuberculosis is endemic. Almost two million people are infected with the disease, which is one fifth of the world total. Despite government investment of over $80 million US dollars in treatment facilities over the last five years, India has one of the highest number of deaths per year, estimated at 330,000. TB is a curable disease, but the last mile in eradication will be the most difficult.

Poverty is a key factor in the transmission and treatment of the disease. The challenge is even greater in many urban communities due to poor living conditions, a lack of access to quality food and inadequate ventilation in confined areas in which large families live. Drug and alcohol abuse are often contributing factors, and stigma is ever present.

Since 2010, the Indian Red Cross has been working in partnership with India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on addressing the challenges in ensuring TB patients complete treatment. The message behind this effort is simple: TB is curable, but patients need to complete their course of treatment fully in order to be cured.

Awareness is vital; understanding how to protect others from infection and knowing the measures that can be taken to avoid infection or re-infection will stop the disease from spreading. With its unique network of thousands of volunteers throughout the country, the Indian Red Cross has the perfect platform to reach communities with these lifesaving messages.

Prem is a volunteer. He lives in the slums of Jalhandar and was infected with TB ten years ago. “It was very difficult at that time,” he says. “We didn’t have the treatments that are now available, and we had to be treated for 18 months. I am lucky to have made it, but it was very hard.”

Prem decided to become a Red Cross volunteer to help others; to share and use his experience in the community from which he came. For the community, he became living proof that the message is true: TB is curable.

Over the past year, Prem has been working with eight patients, all from the slums where he himself lives, making sure that they continue their treatment until the end. All of them have now completed their treatment and have been declared cured.

This is the strength of the programme and one of the main reasons for its success. People who have experience of the disease – and the cure – working within their own communities to help others.

“The Red Cross volunteers are bringing the human touch, the link that was missing in all our previous TB programmes,” says Dr. Naresh Chawla, District TB Officer in Amritsar.

This programme by the Indian Red Cross Society takes care of patients classed as category II TB patients, which means that they had started taking anti-TB treatment before and have stopped taking their medication for one reason or another.

In addition to the follow-up the volunteers do in the communities, they are also running awareness and promotion campaigns using magic shows, posters, leaflets and billboards to take the message where it is needed most.

From an initial pilot of two districts in each of three states, Indian Red Cross Society is this year increasing the reach of this programme in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, to a total of seven states. The government of India has set an ambitious target of a TB-free India and Red Cross volunteers like Prem make a small, but significant contribution to achieving this goal.

This Red Cross programme is delivered with support from the WHO, Central TB Division in Directorate General of Health Services – Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, TB Association of India and IFRC, and has received financial support from USAID and DFID.

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