Avoiding stigmatizing is a must in fighting TB, COVID-19

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A community fever clinic in Yangon announced yesterday that it has diagnosed 50 suspected tuberculosis cases after testing 400 people, and over 30 of these cases need to receive medical treatment. Some of those tested have refused treatment, while others are hesitant to go to health services due to the fear and stigma associated with COVID-19. However, TB must not be ignored amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Putting the blame of acquiring or transmitting TB or COVID-19 infection on the person, or stigmatizing those who are infected, is likely to be big deterrents for those with symptoms to seek care voluntarily. Our country, which is still among the 30 countries most affected by TB, needs to ensure the continuity of TB services in the time of COVID-19. This includes being proactive to protect the most vulnerable, including protection against economic hardships, isolation, stigma and discrimination.
Free X-rays for respiratory tract infections have been added to the services provided by fever clinics under the plan of the National TB Project, to maintain the country’s achievements in fighting TB. Nowadays, TB is disproportionately a disease of the poor. We find it in slums, amongst the rural poor, and amongst those living with HIV. Nearly one-third of the world’s population have latent TB, carrying the bacteria while not showing symptoms, while nearly 10 million a year fall ill – of which 15% die.
Fever is a common symptom of TB and COVID-19 (and also malaria). Cough and breathlessness are common to those with TB and COVID-19.
For instance, a person with persistent cough (which could be because of TB or COVID-19 or some other reason) may feel hesitant to go to health services due to the fear and stigma associated with COVID-19. While fighting the COVID-19, we should promote a culture which avoids stigmatizing all infectious diseases (and not just TB, HIV or COVID-19). The Ministry of Health and Sports alone cannot carry it out. Community engagement at every level plays a pivotal role in reducing stigma, discrimination and shaping a rights-based health response. It will take the combined strength of the concerned ministries and departments, international non-governmental organizations, local NGOs, and civil society organizations to give protection to our people not only from the pandemic but also from the consequences of its control measures.

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