TB stigma still affecting women, says Indian health minister

Photo by bobbyramakantWhile many people think TB-related stigma is a thing of the past, studies conducted by the Tuberculosis Research Centre in India show that a significant number of women become homeless after being diagnosed with the disease.

India’s Health and Family Welfare Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss told delegates at the Fifth International Microbicides Conference 2008 held in New Delhi from February 24 to 27 that “studies done at the Tuberculosis Research Centre in Chennai showed that of the number of women who develop tuberculosis, one in 1000 lose their home.”

Back in 1998, Dr Paul Dolin of WHO’s Global Tuberculosis Programme said “Wives, mothers and wage earners are being cut down in their prime and the world isn’t noticing . . . Yet the ripple effect on families, communities and economies will be felt long after a woman has died.”

“TB is the single biggest killer of young women,” WHO said the same year.

Dr Ramadoss repeated these concerns at the conference and said that since TB was a leading opportunistic infection among people living with HIV and AIDS, the diseases’ impact had become increasingly serious.

Women are biologically and socially more vulnerable to HIV transmission than men and it is vital that TB programs be made accessible to women, particularly those most under-served and economically disadvantaged.

Just a week ago, the body of a woman who died from TB in India was kept in a car for five days by her employer instead of being handed over to her family for cremation. Stories like this highlight the fact that stigma and discrimination are still very real for women with TB.

The WHO-recommended treatment for TB—Directly Observed Treatment Short-course (DOTS)—should help reduce gender inequities and TB education programs should be designed to reach women in a variety of settings. TB treatment centres should be more accessible and safe.

Women’s health is the last priority on many families’ lists so it is hardly surprising that many women are diagnosed and treated for TB very late. Many Indian women also receive the least nutritional food of everyone in their family, making it harder for them to respond well to treatment.

It is high time that people working to reduce gender inequality and those tackling HIV and TB work more closely together. As International Women’s Day and World TB Day approach, let us bring different stakeholders together to change the situation so that even the most disadvantaged women can say ‘I can stop TB’.

Bobby Ramakant-CNS