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23rd March 2018

Fighting for a TB-free world

Ten years ago, Londoner Steve Bradley was shocked to find out that he was infected with tuberculosis (TB) following a lengthy period of testing and misdiagnosis.

“Nobody even thought it could be TB,” the former TV project engineer tells This Is MedTech, noting that it’s common for diagnosis to be slow in developed countries like the UK due to the misconception that the bacterial infection has been eradicated. “Many people think we got rid of it here in the 1950s, so they’ll test for everything except TB,” explains Steve.

It’s extremely contagious and is spread when someone with ‘active’ TB coughs or sneezes. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that over 95% of TB deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, but Steve points out that densely populated cities in developed countries also have high rates. Indeed, TB is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide.

People can also carry ‘latent’ TB, which doesn’t show symptoms and is only activated when their immune system is weak. It’s thus hard to pinpoint exactly when and where a person may have contracted it. Furthermore, the symptoms can be similar to those of the flu or other illnesses, so it can easily be misdiagnosed.

“People also don’t realise that TB can affect any part of the body. I had it in my nose and under my neck,” Steve points out. Once doctors finally diagnosed him using a simple blood test, he was put on a cocktail of medicines but a negative reaction to one of the drugs left him blind within weeks. “This dramatically changed my life as well as that of my partner. I had to stop working and couldn’t be independent anymore. Losing my sight was like a bereavement,” he says.

Steve openly admits that there were moments when he was ready to end his life, but he turned things around, which he largely credits to his guide dog Nickle. He’s now passionate about raising awareness and helping others affected by TB. This includes working closely with TB alert, Guide Dogs and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. “If I can stop someone getting TB or give them support, that’s a positive thing to come from all of this.”

TB can be life-threatening if not caught, but with early diagnosis, the vast majority of cases can be cured when medicines are provided and taken properly. In fact, an estimated 53 million lives were saved through TB diagnosis and treatment between 2000 and 2016, and the incidence is dropping at about 2% per year.

However, to realise global goals of eradicating TB, “a lot of issues still need to be ironed out,” stresses Steve. Some people have a type of TB that’s resistant to the existing medicines available, and this remains a global public health crisis. Moreover, TB is the single biggest cause of illness and death in people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

That’s why World TB Day, whose theme this year is Wanted: Leaders for a TB-Free World, is such a critical vehicle for educating the public as well as spurring investment for research into new and inexpensive TB tests, vaccines and medicines.

Steve is one of these leaders and TB sufferers are fortunate to have him fighting in their corner.