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SA launches TB mobile clinics amid COVID-19 disruption

Low-cost mobile clinics seen as game changer

SA has launched mobile clinics to tackle the scourge of TB
SA has launched mobile clinics to tackle the scourge of TB
Image: 123RF/ Jarun Ontakrai

Parked on the roadside next to a graveyard in Cape Town's Gugulethu township, a tuberculosis hotspot, a team of health workers set up a makeshift TB screening room next to their van.

Gladys Rara, 45, provides a sputum sample and within 90 minutes results are ready.

The rapid testing model, launched in South Africa, will see 10 mobile clinics rolled out across southern Africa in poor communities to diagnose TB patients, in a bid to prevent the disruption surrounding COVID-19 causing a surge in deaths from the world's deadliest infectious disease.

"It is very important for them to come to us," Rara said, adding she was scared of contracting TB. "I am thinking about the others who are around me and my children at home ... Where I am staying there are lots of people with TB."

The van is equipped with a battery-operated, portable molecular diagnostic tool to detect TB DNA in sputum and researchers are hoping the new low-cost model could help prevent runaway TB infections by catching the disease in communities.

The study, known as Xpert for Active Case Finding (XACT), will also screen for COVID-19 at the same time.

"It is a potential game changer. To use an analogy, XACT and active case finding closes the tap rather than just mopping the floor," said Professor Keertan Dheda, principal investigator and head of the pulmonology division at University of Cape Town.

TB kills around 60,000 people every year in South Africa and health experts fear the focus on COVID-19 may divert attention and resources away from the disease, which affects poorer nations worst.

Last year the World Health Organisation warned of a global increase of up to 400,000 TB deaths as COVID-19 led to reduced testing and diagnosis.

South Africa saw a 48% plunge in diagnostic testing volumes between Feb. 3 and May 3 last year, said the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

Restrictions on movement, the closure of clinics and a lack of cash to get to clinics that were open as people lost their incomes in lockdown all contributed.

The 200 million rand ($13.31 million) three-year study, co-funded by the European Union, Britain and U.S. National Institutes of Health, will eventually target 75,000 people in total, including in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

"What we are doing now is fast-tracking the diagnosis, the treatment and obviously that will help with both reducing the burden of disease, the mortality, and the spread of the disease," said doctor Shameem Jaumdally, the project leader.

($1 = 15.0215 rand)