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It Takes A Community

A farmer's journey to recover from TB begins closer to home

Story by USAID publications March 23rd, 2017

Sonny Abellon, 26, lives in Opol, a town on the island Mindanao in the southern region of the Philippines. Many people in this rural town earn their living through fishing or farming.

Sonny has always supported his family by working in nearby rice and corn fields.

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Warning Signs

But last spring, Sonny felt his body become weak. He was unable to farm the rice plots under his care. He couldn’t eat, and he coughed constantly.

Sonny knew that he needed medical care. But this would mean traveling 11 miles on a habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) to the town center. The trip costs about $1.40 each way and would require Sonny to forgo a day’s wage. Sonny, who earns around $20 a month, could not afford these expenses.

“I’d rather spend the fare on some milk or fruit for my son,” he said.

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Timely intervention

While visiting his village’s sari-sari (convenience) store one day, Sonny saw his cousin, Merzin Pangalo.

A trained health volunteer and member of Katauhang Opol Misamisnon Batok TB (KOMBaT), which translates to People of Opol Against Tuberculosis, Merzin immediately recognized the signs of tuberculosis and suspected that Sonny had contracted the disease.

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Merzin arranged Sonny’s transportation to the town’s center, provided free by the local government. At the health clinic, Sonny had a sputum test, which samples fluid from the lungs to see if there are infection-causing germs. This is the primary method for diagnosing TB in low- and middle-income countries, where 98 percent of TB deaths occur.

The results indicated that Sonny had tuberculosis, and so Merzin helped Sonny get a chest x-ray in Cagayan de Oro, the province’s capital city. The local government covered these costs, too.

When the test confirmed that Sonny had tuberculosis, Merzin began preparing Sonny for the long months of treatment that lay ahead.

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In just the past year, over 300,000 Filipinos contracted tuberculosis. The majority of those affected are working-age adults. The illness disrupts people’s productivity and increases their risk of falling into poverty. An unrelenting health problem, tuberculosis kills 38 Filipinos every day.

The key to stopping the spread of tuberculosis is detecting it. Left untreated, a person with tuberculosis can infect up to 15 people per year.

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IT takes a community

The national government has been working to address this issue by improving people’s access to tuberculosis testing and treatment. Rural towns like Opol, however, have been challenged by limited staff and transportation, resulting in too many tuberculosis cases going undetected.

USAID has responded by engaging religious leaders, indigenous groups, and people from hospitals, pharmacies, jails and workplaces to help communities better detect and treat the disease.

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In 2015, USAID helped Opol health officers organize and train parents, village leaders and other residents about tuberculosis. Merzin was among the first volunteers to join the group, who would later call themselves KOMBaT. Today, there are about 3,000 volunteers who serve Opol’s population of nearly 65,000 people.

USAID supported these volunteers by designing simple referral forms and helping the volunteers set targets, such as the number of educational activities they wanted to hold each month. USAID also linked them with local and regional public health government units, so that care and treatment are provided at no cost to patients.

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Since last fall, KOMBaT has operated independently with supervision from the Municipal Health Office. Volunteers visit homes, organize briefings and distribute information to people to teach how tuberculosis is spread and how to get diagnosed.

KOMBaT refers over half of the town’s presumptive cases to seek testing and treatment for the disease. In the past year, the number of tuberculosis cases detected in U.S. Government-supported sites from non-traditional sources such as community-based organizations, jails and pharmacies has more than doubled. This helps contribute to the detection of 85 percent of all new TB cases in the Philippines.

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Getting by with help from friends

The volunteers also serve as treatment partners to those diagnosed with the disease. Merzin became Sonny’s treatment partner, helping to make sure he attended his regular check-ups and took his daily medicines for six months.

“With the right medicines and proper care, a person with tuberculosis can go back to being his or her productive self again,” Merzin said.

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Thanks to Merzin’s care, combined with Sonny’s own drive to care for his family and field again, Sonny finished his treatment in January. Cured of the disease, he was finally released from the grip it held on his family’s future. Today, he works on a vegetable farm and no longer worries about feeding his family.

“I’m grateful to Merzin, who convinced and helped me to go to the health center in Opol,” said Sonny. “Getting the treatment I needed has given me a new lease on life.”

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ABOUT THIS STORY

The U.S. Government, through support from the American people, is committed to forging a world free from tuberculosis. At the core of this vision is a deep commitment to work with global partners to reach every person with TB, cure those in need of treatment, and prevent the spread of disease and new infections.

Since 2013, USAID’s Innovations and Multisectoral Partnerships to Achieve Control of Tuberculosis (IMPACT) project, in partnership with the Philippine Business for Social Progress, engages public and private sectors to detect and cure TB cases. It supports the Philippine Department of Health’s National TB Control Program and works with 44 provinces and cities with high TB prevalence and low case detection and cure rates.

From 2013 to 2016, USAID’s IMPACT project significantly improved TB detection by mobilizing 3,700 volunteers to promote TB awareness; and installing 249 remote smearing stations in 17 provinces.

Footnote: Photos by Rozelle Laurice Carlos for USAID