Places of worship--be they churches, tabernacles, temples or mosques--are places where people regularly gather together. In public health language, they're known as "congregant settings." And it's in congregant settings where tuberculosis--an airborne disease caused by a bacterial infection--is most easily transmitted from person to person.
This means that if we're not aware of the risks, places of worship can actually serve as sites where TB can be transmitted among our neighbors and friends.
People who gather in places of worship are not silent or still. It's just the opposite, in fact. We sing, we worship, we shout. Scientific studies have shown that for someone with TB, the simple act of singing can actually serve the same function as coughing. It can project the TB bacteria out into the air, and others can breathe them in and become sick in turn.
The simple fact that faith leaders oversee congregant settings that are conducive to the spread of TB means that we have a special responsibility to get involved in efforts to end the disease. TB is now the world's leading communicable disease, responsible for 1.5 million deaths in 2014, according to the World Health Organization.
In sub-Saharan Africa especially, many people now know how TB and HIV have worked together to bring death and sorrow to many of our communities. In the area of South Africa where I minister, too many times I have laid to rest my loved ones, beloved members of our community who have died from TB and from TB-HIV co-infection. As a minister, it is a difficult task to console the families and friends of people who have succumbed to a sickness that you know could have--should have--been prevented or cured. Death that is avoidable leaves a different kind of scar on the souls of those still living.
And I am tired of it.
Regardless of their particular religion, people of faith share common values that call us to minister to the needs of the people around us. Our places of worship are filled with loving, caring people who look out for their neighbors. In my own faith tradition, Jesus Christ made healing a core part of his ministry here on Earth. We even refer to Christ sometimes as The Great Healer--he was a healer of broken bodies as well as souls. As Christians, we are called to emulate Christ. This can include taking on the personal responsibility of looking out for the health of our loved ones around us.
For faith leaders who live in places where TB is common, we can do this first by accomplishing something very simple: We can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of TB, so that we are empowered to identify when our neighbor might be unwell with the disease. It's as simple as when we know someone in our midst who has had a prolonged cough, we can help them go to the local health center, where a health worker can screen them for TB and provide them with the care they need.
Collectively, we can do even more than that. TB can be cured in the vast majority of cases. But this doesn't mean that treatment is easy for those who undergo it. A standard case of TB takes six months to treat, and it involves multiple antibiotic medicines. Multidrug-resistant TB can take up to two years to treat, with medicines that have terrible side effects, including depression, deafness and liver damage.
People of faith can play two roles here. First, we can serve as volunteers who help ensure that our neighbors take every dose of the medicine they need in order to make a full recovery. In part through this approach, called "directly observed therapy," many countries have achieved high rates of treatment success. Second, we can provide much-needed social and spiritual support for our neighbors who are undergoing treatment--especially for those who are grappling with MDR-TB and are experiencing difficulties with adverse effects of medicines. Through our congregations, places of worship can create formal support networks for TB patients.
And as faith leaders with influence in our communities, we can do something else that is just as important as distributing medicines. We can use the pulpit to dispel the horrific stigma that is attached to TB. In many places around the world, people with TB are looked down on, abandoned by their family and friends, kicked out of their homes with no possessions or means of support. They are left simply to die. As ministers, faith leaders can spread a message that people with TB deserve love, respect, and care that will see them through to a full recovery.
I believe in the transformative power of people of faith, working together through places of worship, to help turn the tide against TB in South Africa and elsewhere around the world. That is why I am working with the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, the International AIDS Society, and other partners this year to pursue a new initiative that mobilizes people of faith to end TB. We will work to dispel stigma, and we will offer up places of worship as platforms for connecting people with TB to healthcare services and social support.
According to the Stop TB Partnership, there are three million people each year who develop TB, but who do not go on to receive a proper diagnosis or treatment. Working together, people of faith can help to reach these people and to minister to them in sickness, so that they can be restored to full health as God intended.
Reverend Nicholas Busani Bhengu is a minister serving in KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. He is also a member of a community research advisory team, linking scientific researchers and affected communities, for a project on the uptake and effectiveness of TB preventive therapy in a region with high rates of TB-HIV co-infection.
This post is part of the 'The Isolation of Airborne Cancer' series produced by The Huffington Post for World TB Day. This series will look at the devastating issues surrounding tuberculosis, the number one infectious killer. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #WorldTBDay.
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