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UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
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Shunned TB sufferers trapped in poverty in Vietnam

Even when they recover from the deadly disease, patients still face discrimination

ucanews reporter, Hue

ucanews reporter, Hue

Updated: October 17, 2019 02:58 AM GMT
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Shunned TB sufferers trapped in poverty in Vietnam

A nun visits and offer gifts to a tuberculosis patient at his home in Hue. (Photo by Peter Nguyen/ucanews)

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Tran Thi Hoa, her face gaunt and haggard, her eyes glazed, lies permanently on her bed breathing heavily. She is a bag of bones, only stirring to take her medicine and eat.

This woman in her late 40s has been receiving long-term medical treatment at the Tuberculosis and Lung Disease Hospital in Hue City, central Vietnam, after she was diagnosed with pleural effusion caused by a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (TB) in June.

The mother of two said that in the past she had never visited a doctor, just buying medicines from pharmacies without prescription when she coughed or found it hard to breathe.

“I started to suffer from tuberculosis in 2017 due to working hard in a polluted environment,” Hoa said from under a mask.

She was forced to trade her belongings and scavenge through burning garbage sites for metal and plastic items just to make ends meet.

Hoa said that although TB inpatients like her have access to free treatment, they have to pay for supplementary items and services.

“We borrowed 15 million dong (US$650) from our neighbors to cover my expenses and the money is nearly used up,” she said. Her husband, who grinds other people’s knives for a living, has had to stop work to look after her at the hospital full time.

“The doctors advised me to eat nutritious food to help my body recover but I only have rice and vegetables because we have no money,” she said.

She said she was undergoing a strict 20-month supervised regimen involving multiple daily drug doses.

“I want to be cured of my disease soon so that I can return to work but I also worry about my neighbors finding out about my illness and avoiding me,” Hoa said in a low voice.

Experts say that in 2018 Vietnam recorded 126,000 new tuberculosis cases and that 13,000 patients died from the airborne infection. It is the 16th worst-affected country for TB sufferers and 13th for having the highest rate of multidrug-resistant TB patients. Multidrug-resistant TB is immune to two of the most common antibacterial drugs used to treat the disease.

Doctors say TB often strikes those who live in poverty and polluted environments. The reason some of them progress to suffering from multidrug-resistant TB is because they abandon strict drug regimens or fail to use the proper medicines.

Experts have further warned that current conditions encourage the rapid spread of the disease — 20 percent of patients don’t realize they have it and will unknowingly pass it on to their communities. Others scrape by on below-average incomes and have no idea how to prevent it striking them in the first place.

Easy to stop it spreading

Dr. Nguyen Van Cuong, a TB expert in Hue, said new patients can be cured and not be at risk danger of spreading the disease — but only if they complete a strict regimen in six months.

However, he warned, ignorance causes people to fear being infected by patients, so they avoid and discriminate against them.

“Many patients have to hide their illness and consequently give up medical treatment, thus increasing the spread of the infectious disease in communities,” he said.

More than 1,200 new TB cases are found annually in Thua Thien Hue province, of which 20-25 suffer the multidrug-resistant and extremely drug-resistant form of the disease.

Van Cuong said many patients fail to overcome their illness because they are the breadwinners in their families, live far from hospitals and lack the funds to cover the costs of long-term treatment.

Mary Dang Thi Mai, who caught TB in 2017 and underwent a strict regimen for six months at a hospital, said she was now fully recovered but still did not dare tell other people because she feared they would avoid her.

The college student said her mother borrowed the money to pay for her treatment and had not paid off the debt. Now her mother, who works at a motorbike park for a living, is also showing signs of suffering from TB.

“I am worried about a risk of a relapse because my health is not good and I have few nourishing meals,” said the thin student, who works as a personal tutor after school to support her family.

Phan Lanh caught TB from his wife, who died in 2016, and said he lived on free food supplied by Catholic nuns during his two-year regimen at a hospital. He also worked while sick, selling lottery tickets to pay for food as he has no relatives.

“Now I’ve recovered from the illness but no one visits me,” said the pale 70-year-old man, who receives a monthly government allowance of just 300,000 dong (US$13).

Lanh, from Phong Dien district, said Catholics regularly visited and offered him food, clothes and money. They also plan to repair his ramshackle house.

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