The number of Liberians suffering from tuberculosis rose dramatically in 2008, according to government statistics, and health officials say more needs to be done to educate people about preventing the debilitating disease.
In the second half of 2008 5,000 TB cases were recorded, compared to 3,000 in all of 2007, according to the National Office on Tuberculosis and Leprosy.
Ernest Choplopy, deputy manager of monitoring at the national office, said staff are still conducting research and the final figures for 2008 could be higher.
Dedeh Barr Kesselly, the office's deputy programme manager, told IRIN: “With these latest figures we can see a big problem exists in our society. TB is a big burden…because when someone contracts the disease it creates a large gap not only in our families, but also in our workforce, and in our economy.”
Tuberculosis is an airborne infectious disease that can be treated with antibiotics, but if not treated properly it can be fatal.
Each year nine million people around the world fall ill with the disease, according to the Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatititis, STD and TB Prevention.
Why the spread
Kesselly blames the rise on lack of awareness about how TB spreads, poor sanitation and overcrowded living conditions, combined with poor nutrition and a health infrastructure devastated by 14 years of war.
TB is transmitted through the air when an infected person coughs, talks, sneezes or spits.
TB flourishes in crowded, unhygienic environments. In November 2008 the disease spread among prisoners in the capital’s Monrovia Central prison, according to non-profit Centre for the Protection of Human rights.
The government runs a nationwide TB control programme to prevent new infections and extend access to treatment.
Supported by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the government runs 98 treatment centres in the country, where patients receive free consultations or drugs. But it is not reaching all rural areas throughout Liberia.
Fatorma Bolley of the World Health Organization in Liberia said there are enough drugs for existing patients until 2010, "so all sufferers with access to a clinic are given the drugs they need."
But not all sufferers have that access, and that is part of the problem, health workers said.
TB sufferers in rural areas are unable to access care, said Kesselly of the national office on TB and leprosy. The government is building 14 more clinics around the country, but even that will not be enough, she said.
The TB control programme lacks transport and even basic equipment to monitor infection rates, she said.
There are also not enough staff to run all the centres, Kesselly said. “Even if we could have adequate drugs all over the country, we need to develop more qualified staff to combat the infection."
And she said Liberians need to be made more aware of how the infection is passed on and how to detect it and seek treatment early.
“We need to proactively seek out prevention strategies, and look for funding sources beyond the Global Fund,” she told IRIN.
“To reach the Millennium Development Goal [of halting and reversing the incidence of malaria and other major diseases by 2015] we need to work harder, train up more staff and create more diagnostic services,” Kesselly said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions