India’s tuberculosis (TB) burden accounts for one-fifth of the global cases of the disease. In 2011, there were an estimated 3.1 million Indians affected by active TB. The problem is further compounded by HIV/AIDS, which is driving the resurgence of TB not only globally but also in India. HIV increases TB risk approximately seven-fold. Of the estimated 1.42 million TB deaths across the world, 430,000 die due to HIV/TB co-infection.
Typically, the integration of TB interventions into HIV services has focused on generalised HIV epidemics, with less emphasis on key populations, including sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), and people who use drugs. Yet the engagement and participation of key populations can be a vital strategy to address HIV/TB co-infection and improve access to diagnostic and treatment services toward the goal of achieving zero TB deaths.
Recognising the vulnerability of key populations and the difficulties they face in accessing TB services, India HIV/AIDS Alliance under the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan India AIDS Initiative has implemented a verbal TB screening programme in Andhra Pradesh since 2007. Under the screening programme, peer educators at health clinics and outreach workers in the field identify TB symptoms in key population clients and refer suspected cases for sputum testing.
Take the case of Satyanandam, a member of the local MSM community. During a regular medical check-up at one of Alliance India’s Mythri clinics, he was found through verbal screening to be suffering from symptoms of TB: cough and night sweats. He was referred to a designated microscopic centre for sputum testing. An outreach worker accompanied him to the facility where he was found positive for TB.
Satyanandam was then supported by a local non-profit organisation (NGO) to ensure he successfully completed treatment. An outreach worker kept tabs on his medicine intake and advised him to stop smoking and practice good cough etiquette. After six months of treatment, Satyanandam was cured of TB. “Thanks to the Mythri clinic, the outreach workers, and NGO staff who cared for me during my illness. Because of their support, my family and I are healthy and happy now,” he said.
In fact, there are many Satyanandams who have been cured due to early TB detection through verbal screening. To date, 54,000 people have undergone verbal screening in Andhra Pradesh and among them, almost 2,000 each year have been referred for sputum examination. The proportion of people who accessed TB treatment increased from 83% to 94% in three years.
The intervention demonstrated that integration of TB interventions into HIV prevention services for key populations is feasible and complements the Government of India’s goals and targets under the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP). Partnership with most-at-risk communities, civil society organisations, healthcare providers and government should be a key strategy to realise a world with zero deaths from TB, so that every Sathyanandam can live a long and productive life without TB.