Battling Tuberculosis in Asia

TB in Asia

A CRS staffer looks at TB medication with Sister Carmelita Martines, a Carmelite nun who cares for tuberculosis patients in a rest house outside of Dili, East Timor. Photo by Laura Sheahen / CRS

“When I first arrived here, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t eat.” Maria Sabina Tai, a 40-year-old mother of 7 living in East Timor, sits in the yard of a treatment center for people with tuberculosis. Maria had felt sick for two years, but wasn’t sure what the sickness was. “Then a TB volunteer found me,” she says. She went to the center mainly because of her children: “I was worried about my kids.”

The volunteer who found Maria is part of a CRS-supported program run by Klibur Domin, a local organization in this small, impoverished country near Australia. Though East Timor’s population is only one million, over 470 people die from TB each year here; many more are infected. Klibur Domin runs the 50-bed treatment home, where patients stay and receive a course of antibiotics and good food. Klibur Domin also seeks out sick people in their villages, and raises awareness of the disease.

Tuberculosis festers and spreads easily “where people are crowded together in a small space, and where there is poor ventilation,” says CRS’ Michelle Lang-Alli, who is Asia Regional Technical Advisor for Health. Malnourishment and overwork add to the problem.

TB attacks people who are already weak. One vulnerable group are refugees. In southern India, refugees from Sri Lanka live in cramped warehouses where cooking smoke fills the air. There, residents who contract TB pass it on to other family members, including their children.

CRS programs help TB patients recover and prevent TB from spreading. In East Timor, CRS funds health groups that care for TB patients. In Cambodia, CRS partners do home visits, making sure TB patients are taking their medication properly. In southern India, CRS and its diocesan partners are building new houses for Sri Lankan refugees so they can leave their crowded, unhealthy quarters.

In Timor, Catholic sisters play an important role in running rest houses where patients can take medicine and recover. “In the past, families just thought it was a regular disease,” says Sister Carmelita Martines at the TB home she and her fellow Carmelite nuns run in Timor. If people aren’t in a controlled environment like a rest home, they often make mistakes and don’t take the medicine properly.

The sisters follow up when patients are strong enough to leave the rest house but are still taking the antibiotics. “We call them the champions of TB in East Timor,” says Lang-Alli. “They’re very active. They’ll chase patients up if they don’t finish their treatment.”

Throughout Asia, CRS and its partners are helping the poor breathe easy. “I feel happy and grateful when I see patients return home well,” says Sister Carmelita. “You’re like a bridge that God’s love can flow over to reach them.”

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