After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in South Africa, Karen Husselman was briefly admitted there but insisted on being brought back home to a familiar territory that later became a depressing environment, as people started being scared of her.
Husselman started her treatment, completed it and was healed. She then took the bold step to speak up for patients suffering from TB.
“I experienced that type of rejection, as people decided to stay far away from me and didn’t want to be close to me, which is fine because that time, people were not so much informed about TB,” she confided to Vital Signs.
Although she experienced this ordeal in 2005, Husselman said in 2023, the stigma is still strongly felt among TB sufferers.
“But you still see that today, we experience and there’s the notion from people or the assumption that people who have TB are poor people or dirty people – that they are people who are not educated. We sort of push them to the periphery. We still feel that someone who has TB is someone we must keep a distance from.”
Her experience and that of other Namibians motivated her to start an initiative, TB Free Foundation, which aims to be one of the catalysts to create space in communities for persons recovering from bacterial infection.
“I was working in an HIV clinic a few years back, and we were more concerned about that (HIV) than anything else. TB was sort of in the background. It was on a trip to Cape Town that I started to develop some symptoms and not feeling okay.”
Husselman relayed how after working in severe unhealthy working conditions, she didn’t notice that she was losing weight, developing a high fever and lying in bed more.
“One thing led to another, and I was diagnosed with TB in South Africa. I was initially admitted there for a few days and then requested to come back home.”
Of the foundation, she said: “We are just sort of newly established. We do have board members and we will be partnering with TB Proof from South Africa, as they have similar objectives as us to come and train TB champions here in Namibia”.
The team intends to zoom in on the issues of childhood TB, as she is in the process of registering for her PhD, focussing on that.
“We have annual awareness rides – bicycle rides – where we create awareness. We also want to collaborate with men because our data shows that TB is more prevalent in men,” she stated.
Health executive director Ben Nangombe told Vital Signs the success of any public health intervention depends on how communities work together and help communities support those who are infected with a particular disease.
“This means those who are affected of course have to take care of themselves, taking appropriate measures to ensure those who are in proximity to them do not contract the infection. But the important thing is to show compassion and show that you care. A person who is ill needs the support of their family members and their communities,” said Nangombe.
“In all the settings where we have a person who is facing an illness, our responsibility and obligation is to show that level of compassion.”
“Whether a person is suffering from TB or HIV, we need to show that compassion and at the same time, do so in a responsible manner, ensuring that we do not become infected. Infection is contagious and infectious, so what is important is to show that compassion and support,” he said, noting that it’s “the only way we can defeat the challenges that we face in the public sector”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its Unite to End TB campaign places a special focus on tying efforts to ‘Leave No One Behind’, including actions to address stigma, discrimination and marginalisation, and overcome barriers to access care.
The WHO states that the heaviest burden is carried by communities that already face socio-economic challenges, like migrants, refugees, prisoners, ethnic minorities, miners and others working and living in risk-prone settings, as well as marginalised women, children and older people.