Tuberculosis, a forgotten disease still endemic in South Africa's Cape Town

© RFI/Laura-Angela Bagnetto

Zanyiwe Mavebenwane, from Cape Town in South Africa, hasn’t seen her eldest daughter in two months. It’s the fifth time she has had tuberculosis, and is receiving long-term care in hospital. The unemployed mother of five runs a soup kitchen a few times a week and is taking care of her one-year-old grandchild, who also has TB.

“We buried her partner, the father of her daughter, two weeks ago. She gave TB to him and he died,” says Mavebenwane, a resident of Masiphumelele Township in Cape Town.

She hopes that her daughter will finally be cured, as her latest bout of TB has been especially traumatic.

According to the World Health Organisation, tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in South Africa. Some 58,000 people died of TB in 2019, and more than half of those who died were HIV positive as well.

“One in five children who start school at the age of five will already be infected with TB, and by the time they reach their 15th birthday, it’s one in two,” says Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker, the CEO of the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation in Cape Town.

Almost every single person in the townships where the Foundation works will have been exposed to TB by the time they reach adulthood, she adds.

“In other words, we live in a sea of tuberculosis.”

An ancient disease

Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. As a result, two TB-related conditions exist: latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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