The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

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Our fight to eliminate TB in Vietnam

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Dr Thu Anh Nguyen from Woolcock Vietnam knows tuberculosis (TB) better than anyone – she's a doctor working to eradicate the disease in Vietnam, and she's had TB herself.

In this video, Thu Anh talks about experiencing the stigma of TB first-hand as a patient, and her hopes for a future free from this deadly disease.

The stigma of TB

Thu Anh contracted TB in 2019. Her experience as a patient gave her fresh insights into the stigma experienced by people with TB.

"When I received my diagnosis, I was not a doctor – I was a patient," she says. "The nurses were afraid of me because of my disease."

Traditionally in Vietnam, TB has been seen as some sort of weakness in the family, something to conceal from the community.

"Many patients in our program hide from us," Thu Anh says. "When we go to their house and knock on their door, they disappear, because they don't want to be seen as a TB patient."

"People who live with TB are seen as those who are weak, those who are poor. It's a highly stigmatised disease in Vietnam." 

The stigmatisation of TB can significantly hamper health programs. It means that people might conceal that they have TB, preventing them from coming forward for screening and treatment.

What can COVID-19 tell us about TB?

COVID-19 first appeared in Vietnam on 23 January 2020. "I still remember that day," Thu Anh says. "There was such chaos in our country."

Vietnam has since gone through four waves of COVID-19 outbreaks.

"It's really difficult for us because we have to work with patients who have respiratory symptoms, and who might also have COVID," she says. "When doing testing, we have to ask patients to produce sputum or to blow strongly into our machines, which might spread the virus if they have COVID-19. So it's very dangerous."

The Woolcock's Professor Greg Fox says "I think COVID has taught us how we can be much more ambitious about efforts to combat tuberculosis."

"In Vietnam we've seen a very strong national approach to prevent COVID transmission," says Greg. 

If we can overcome the stigma of TB, and if we can take the same proactive approach as we've done with COVID, then it may be possible to bring down the rates of TB very rapidly. 

Thu Anh is positive for the future. "I hope that if the country could do a massive screening and treatment countrywide, then even in the next 20 years, maybe our new generation will not know what TB is."

"We are able to eliminate the disease," she says defiantly.

Thu Anh's story featured in the ABC series 'Pandemic Warriors'.

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