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Scant Care For Egypt’s Tuberculosis Infected Workers

For years, Mohammad Mustafa inhaled the soft dust that used to come out of the machines in the cement factory south of Cairo where he worked, but he never thought those small particles would end his career. A few years ago, the 55-year-old former cement worker developed a chronic cough with blood-tinged sputum, fever and night sweats, and he began losing weight. When a doctor told him he had tuberculosis (TB), he said he collapsed in shock with the realization that he would lose his job, just as many of his former colleagues had when they had been found to have TB.

“Cement dust used to fall on my head in showers every minute,” Mustafa said. “I never expected it to bring about my end,” he told IRIN.

The Egyptian government says 21 in every 1,000 Egyptians are infected with TB every year. But only about one in 10 of these latent cases become active. It estimates the number of patients nationwide to be 17,000, but independent organizations say the number is far higher.

“TB has come to pose a real danger to the people of this country,” said Essam al-Moghazy, chief of the National Tuberculosis Control Program, a state-run agency seeking to assist TB patients.

“The problem is that poor Egyptians living in the country’s slums are more prone to it,” Moghazy added.

Having TB, an infectious and sometimes deadly disease that is passed from person to person through the air, is cause for automatic dismissal in many companies in Egypt.

Mohamed al-Asmaie, head of Friends of the Environment, a local NGO campaigning on behalf of TB patients, said when many Egyptian workers become sick with TB, instead of receiving treatment in hospitals, they are laid off and have to fend for themselves.

“Tuberculosis patients shouldn’t [lose their jobs],” said Asmaie. “Employers shouldn’t take the fruit and throw out the peel like this.”

Mustafa, who lives in the industrial city of Helwan, about 30 kilometers south of Cairo’s center, blames the years of cement dust inhalation for weakening his immune system enough to get infected by TB.

Though there is no hard scientific evidence linking cement dust to TB, studies have shown that persons with silicosis – a lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, often caused by occupational exposure – are up to 30 times more likely to develop TB.

Tuberculosis is the third most life-threatening disease in Egypt, after bilharzia and hepatitis C, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

Despite this, in its 2009 Global Report, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Egypt had succeeded in achieving the global target in TB case detection and treatment success in 2007.

The case detection rate of positive cases in Egypt was 72 percent (global target is 70 percent) and the treatment success rate was 87 percent (global target is 85 percent), WHO said in its report.

Health officials in Egypt hope to eradicate TB by 2050.

But such statistics mean nothing to tuberculosis patients such as Mustafa. The father of six, who lives on a pension of $14 a month, has already developed lung cancer and psoriasis, like many of his colleagues from the factory who were infected with TB.

Adding to his burden is that he has infected his wife and one of his six children.

“Most of the drugs my doctors give me are ineffective,” Mustafa said. “Everybody keeps avoiding me and my wife for fear of catching TB.”

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