March 23, 2012 | The Editors

Sputum fixers fight TB

It’s among the most intriguing job titles at PATH: sputum fixer.

Sputum fixers canvas their communities in rural Tanzania, asking people who suffer from a cough to deliver up a sample of mucus—called sputum—which they “fix” on a slide and deliver by bicycle to distant laboratories for analysis. Their objective: identify community members with active cases of tuberculosis (TB).

Young woman in bicycles on a dirt road.
Sputum fixers like this young woman use bicycles to reach people who may have tuberculosis. Photo: PATH.

It’s a very personal process—one that points out the tricky nature of TB and the crucial importance of rapid diagnosis and effective treatment.

Find and treat

With World TB Day arriving on Saturday, the spotlight is on how dangerous TB can be if left undiagnosed and untreated. The World Health Organization estimates that, left untreated, each person with an active case of TB infects 10 to 15 other people every year. TB can be cured using medicines, but that requires swift diagnosis and treatment that takes about six months. That’s much longer than treatment for other diseases caused by bacteria.

Other complications make TB particularly difficult to fight. The bacteria that cause TB are becoming increasingly resistant to the two most effective drugs available. When people develop multidrug-resistant TB, treatment takes even longer.

Because HIV infection weakens their immune systems, people living with HIV are particularly susceptible to becoming sick with TB—a condition called TB–HIV co-infection. In countries like Tanzania, TB is the leading cause of death among people with HIV.

Help in the community

Sputum fixers are a crucial part of our Tanzania Country Program’s efforts to fight TB. Their work is labor intensive, but effective. An analysis of samples collected by sputum fixers from nearly 1,200 people in five districts of Tanzania found that almost 9 percent returned results indicating active TB.

Sputum fixers aren’t the only community members who are working to address TB. In some villages, PATH has helped train community volunteers to educate their neighbors about TB. We have also worked with local pharmacists and traditional healers to get the word out about the susceptibility of people with HIV to the disease, and to help all people with active TB seek treatment and stick with it.

Learn more about our work in TB.

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