Innovative solutions when dealing with TB in adolescents

Diana E Wangari, CNS Special Correspondent
Photo credit: Diana E Wangari/CNS
Have you ever been to a hotel or a restaurant and there is a family seated opposite you-- the father with his laptop, the mother on a tablet, the daughter on her phone and the son with his headphones connected to the iPod? They might put their gadgets away to eat, only to pick them up after every five minutes or so, perhaps just to check if there is a message that came through or to check if the world has suddenly gone to the past five minutes. It is a fact that people today cannot survive without electronic devices and the constant need to ensure that they are up-to-date with what is happening in the world-- be in it the political, economical or even social arena. Why then can we not take advantage of this fact in the fight against TB, especially amongst adolescents whose worlds often centre around their mobile devices?

Adolescents of today spend more of their time online as opposed to time having actual human interaction. Many from the older generation might consider it as an 'act of rebellion' by unfocused teens whose main speciality is being difficult. However, according to Alice Armstrong, who has had years of dealing with adolescent TB and was involved in the formulation of the adolescent guidelines launched by WHO this November, there is more to the story.

"Upon asking teens what they would need to motivate them to attend TB clinics and follow up with their health care providers, it was not a large plasma screen TV or fully equipped recreational rooms or the variety of snacks that they stock," Alice said. "They asked that we recognize that they too have needs and fears that are similar to adults. One girl in Zimbabwe went on to draw a picture that perfectly summarizes their need--the face of a man with big ears and a small mouth, to indicate that healthcare providers need to hear more and talk less."

And are we truly listening? It starts with finding a way to engage adolescents and to do so, we  must use channels that interest them. Alice went out to highlight several platforms that have been set up, just for that. Some are in the form of mobile applications, others are interactive online platforms, yet others are centres being run by adolescents and youths who are aware of teens needs and whom teens can trust and others are just forums that seek to engage teens in a language that they can understand such as dance. Examples include ‘Zvandiri’, ‘dance4life’, ‘TeenTalk’ and ‘Parent pathway’.

For most of these projects, they involve simple staff with little resources but making a BIG difference just because they thought of ‘outside the box’ solutions centred around the needs of adolescents and what captivates their attention.

According to the WHO, there are approximately 655,000 incident cases of adolescent TB and that in itself is enough cause to start considering adolescent TB as a separate entity from adult TB; the presentation might be similar but their needs are different.

"There is need for incorporation of 'friendliness' into the training of health care workers while dealing with adolescent TB and HIV," Alice emphasized. She was quick to add that in adolescents the challenge is not so much in the disease entity, but is more related to the social aspects.

Adolescents are speaking; the question is: will we listen?

Diana Esther Wangari, Citizen News Service - CNS
5 November 2014
(WHO Global Tuberculosis Programme is supporting onsite CNS Correspondents Team's coverage around community engagement issues related to TB care and control from the 45th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Barcelona, Spain. Email: