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Fighting 'The White Plague' In Drought Ridden Somaliland

03/24/2017 01:21 EDT | Updated 03/24/2017 01:32 EDT

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Nearly 2,000 people have received live-saving care at the Gabiley Tuberculosis Hospital in Somaliland. (Photo: Brett Tarver)

"I was certain that I was going to die," said 25-year-old Ifrah in Somaliland, of her battle with tuberculosis.

It's not something we should be hearing in 2017. An illness old enough to have been known as 'consumption' or 'The White Plague' should have its place in medical history -- not claiming 1.8 million lives a year. But claiming lives it is, especially in the developing world.

The year's theme for World Tuberculosis Day is "leave no one behind." This holds special meaning for me. I've just returned from Somalia, the place with the highest incidence of TB in the world. Drought has brought the entire region to its knees, making families more vulnerable than ever to infectious illness.

At the Gabiley TB Hospital in Somaliland the fight against tuberculosis is raging every day. But thanks to a quality of care that's uncommon in this region -- one third of all TB patients globally miss out on effective care -- many people are recovering.

Getting the care

Ifrah got a second chance at life at the Gabiley hospital. The young woman had been so sick from tuberculosis, her weight had dropped to a dangerously low 88 lbs, a reading more common for a healthy, ten-year-old girl here in Canada.

"I was too weak to walk," said Ifrah. "I was even too weak to talk." Ifrah didn't understand that she'd contracted TB, but she and her family knew there was something terribly wrong. She wasn't getting better and she desperately needed help.

The pastoralist family managed to catch a ride on a truck from their rural home in search of medical assistance at the Gabiley Hospital. Ifrah was soon diagnosed with TB, and placed on course of chemotherapy to save her life.

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World Vision TB Coordinator Dr. Mustafe Hassan has helped treat nearly 2,000 patients. (Photo: Brett Tarver)

The effect of drought

Dr. Mustafe Hassan, World Vision TB Coordinator at the hospital, has helped provide treatment to 2,000 tuberculosis patients with a high rate of success. But more and more new patients keep arriving. Many are weakened by malnutrition caused by drought in Somaliland, and are far more susceptible to disease.

Ifrah believes she got the illness from a cousin who visited, with TB-like symptoms. Bacteria can get released into the air when a person who is already infected coughs, sneezes, sings or talks. Stronger immune systems can sometimes fight the illness -- but not when resistance is low.

"Because of the drought we no longer eat meat or have milk to drink," Ifrah says. "We can only afford to eat dry rice and we have just two meals per day instead of three," she adds.

"This devastating drought is a significant factor in new TB cases like Ifrah's," says Dr. Hassan. Lack of rain, he explains, is destroying livelihoods of pastoralist families like Ifrah's. "Without water to drink, entire herds of animals are dying, putting an incredible strain on already meager resources."

Ready to run again

Thanks to quick and effective treatment, Ifrah has now almost completely recovered. Her tests are now negative for TB. Her energy has returned. Not only can Ifrah walk again, but she can run, she told me with a proud smile.

"I'm feeling really good now," she says. "I feel happy again, and I can't wait to go back home to my husband and my twin boys."

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Ifrah is ready to run again, thanks to the Gabiley TB hospital in Somaliland. (Photo: Brett Tarver)

Ifrah will return to her family with a knowledge of TB that she can share with others. No one wishes for a life-and-death struggle. But Ifrah is now prepared to educate her community on how to identify the signs of tuberculosis, and prevent it from spreading.

Dire warnings

The Gabiley TB hospital has been highly successful in treating patients, and World Vision is proud to provide support. But patient numbers are soaring as the drought grinds on. The hospital has experienced a 50 per cent leap in new TB cases because of the drought, says Dr. Hassan.

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(Photo: Steph Glinski)

Once infected, TB can be notoriously difficult to treat -- especially if people have fought the illness before. Many patients are now resistant to drugs typically used to tackle TB. The usual course of treatment is months-long, and interruptions can render medications useless in the future.

It's critically important that people's bodies remain strong against possible infections. But without nutritious food to eat, the health of families across the region continues to weaken, leaving it easier for TB to take hold.

"If the impact of the drought on the people is not addressed, the risk of disease will continue to escalate," says Dr. Hassan.

Help fight TB through nutrition

One of the best things you can do to reduce TB in Somaliland, is to help families stay healthy in the face of drought. More than six million people -- nearly 50 per cent of Somalia's population -- is need of immediate humanitarian assistance.

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Seven-year-old Muha has come to the Gabiley TB Hospital for a screening, something many children do, as a precaution. (Photo: Steph Glinski.)

World Vision has supported the Gabiley TB Hospital since 2005. Now, a complex hunger crisis across East Africa means 22 million people are facing severe food shortages. There's much more we need to do.

You can help families across East Africa, by providing things like clean water, nutritious food, and basic medical care.

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