TB touches a chord

Toto Ngqu works as a carguard in Fish Hoek on a Sunday to raise funds for his BA studies at the University of the Western Cape.

The 21-year-old from Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape is also something of a get-tested-and-take-your-muti activist because of his association with the play Touched by TB.

It was commissioned as a thank you from University of Stellenbosch medical researchers to more than 1 000 residents of the Cape Flats who are participating in a complex seven-country study of how tuberculosis spreads through homes.

The story, which was written and directed by science theatre specialist David Muller, was checked by researchers to ensure that it was free of the many urban legends surrounding the microbe.

As a result of those performances, Ngqu has been in regular contact with his family in Khayelitsha ever since his four-year-old niece, Linathi, contracted TB.

He wants to ensure that the preschooler takes her daily medication for the entire six months. ‘I know now what happens when you don’t take the drugs regularly,” he said.

Pauline Aaron, an actress in Touched by TB, plays the role of a mother who trusts her son when he says that he is taking his TB pills. He stops, develops a multidrug-resistant strain and dies.

‘I come from Elsies River,” Aaron said, ‘and you could see on the faces of the audience that they were responding to the storyline.”

Dr Gill Black, a Scottish-born Stellenbosch University immunologist, commissioned the play. She and her colleagues — Kim Stanley, Nulda Beyers, Nelita du Plessis and Nokwanda Ngombane — are co-investigators in the global Biomarkers for TB project.

They and other African researchers from Malawi, the Gambia, Uganda and Ethiopia are part of a worldwide effort to find out why some people are resistant to the bacillus.

The South African wing of the study, which began as a pilot project in 2005, includes about 200 people who have TB, some of whom are ill.

Not only does the study track their treatment and the progress of their disease, it also tracks the health of more than 1 100 members of their households. Special attention is paid to TB patients who are HIV-positive or are infected during the course of the study.

The researchers are tackling the illness with a battery of new and sophisticated immunity tests, including monitoring how blood from people with TB will respond to a range of proteins.

Another high-tech test falls under the futuristic-sounding title of transcriptomics, a field of chemistry that didn’t exist a few years ago.

‘Transcriptomics allows us to study each patient’s entire set of ribonucleic acids or RNA, which is a single strand of critically important genetic information,” Black said.

‘Very few of the people who are infected with TB will develop an active form of the disease. We are hunting for markers that will show who will get sick and who will not. In the long run we want to have a test that can say, yes, you’ve been exposed to TB and we can say whether you’re at risk,” the immunolgist said.

Touched by TB will have its premier on World Tuberculosis Day on Wednesday March 24 at the SciFest Africa in Grahamstown. Email [email protected] or check www.scifest.org.za for more information

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Christina Scott
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