Even with investment, a usable vaccine is still a decade away. Photograph: Marco Longari/Getty Images.
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Underground epidemic: the tuberculosis crisis in South Africa's gold mines

South Africa's gold mining industry has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. Repeated union strikes have resulted in bloody clashes between workers and police. Economic pressure has increased after a recent fall in the price of gold. However, there is another major problem blighting the South African gold mining industry - one which rarely makes international headlines: the seemingly unstoppable tuberculosis (TB) epidemic, which has spread through the majority of the workforce.

Pulmonary TB is a known killer in many countries, but nowhere is it thought to be more prolific than deep underground in South Africa’s gold mines. Statistics provided by non-profit biotech company Aeras, which works to advance TB research and development and is this month heading up a TB and mining awareness campaign, states that of the 2.3 million new cases of TB reported in Africa last year, 760,000 – almost a third – were connected to mining in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Aeras, nine out of ten gold miners in South Africa are latently infected with TB and one mine worker with active TB can spread the disease to between 10 and 15 other people.

“The [South African] mining industry, in particular gold and platinum, has some of the highest rates of TB in the world, if not the highest,” says Aeras Vice President of External Affairs, Kari Stoever.

“TB is a major risk in this occupation [mining] that is providing a livelihood for over a million people in just the South African region.”

One of the biggest gold miners in the region, AngloGold Ashanti, said the company recognises the scale of the problem: “We are certainly cognisant of the gravity of the TB problem in South Africa as a whole, and therefore also in the gold mining industry. Over the past decade we have intensified our efforts to address this issue,” said a representative.

HIV infection and exposure to silica dust in ultra-deep mines, along with close working and living conditions predispose South African gold miners to TB, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January.

Results of the large-scale, five-year study of 78,744 miners in 15 gold mines from 2006 to 2011, showed that intervention treatment did not reduce the incidence of TB. Although it did show a reduced incidence of TB during treatment, 12 months after the study, researchers did not find any difference in the number of cases of TB in those who had preventative therapy and those who didn’t.

Stoever says the problem may not be isolated to South Africa, but other African mining nations as well, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where TB is endemic, and Ghana, but it is impossible to know for sure because the data isn’t being collected.

The infectious and often fatal disease, which attacks the lungs and is spread through the air, is having a huge affect on miner’s health, as well as that of their families and their finances. It’s also costing mining companies heavily in lost productivity and costly treatment and in turn the general economy because the mining industry makes up 18 per cent of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product.

According to Aeras, the TB epidemic results in miners losing $320 million per year in lost wages. TB treatment is reported to cost the South African government and mining industry more than $360 million per year.

Stoever says the total economic toll of TB in South Africa is estimated to be about $1.3bn per year. “South Africa went from being number one in production of gold to sixth in the world but they are number one for cost,” she adds.

However, there is no straight-forward solution to the problem. Treating TB isn’t cheap and it can be complicated due to increasing drug resistance or the presence of HIV. Stoever says treatment for straightforward TB is six months of antibiotics followed by ensuring the individual is not infectious before returning down the mine. For drug-resistant TB, treatment is a combination of highly toxic drugs for up to two years. In some mine treatment centres this can cause a sanatorium-type lockdown until the workers' sputum clears. Drug resistance is also a huge concern which, if it worsens, which is entirely possible, could be “catastrophic” says Stoever.

Currently there is no vaccine for TB in adults, but there is a common misconception that the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine (BCG) given to school children around the world can protect against adult respiratory TB , but it is much less effective in protecting adults against pulmonary TB than it is children.

Mining companies, particularly the bigger ones, have largely been addressing the TB epidemic head-on. Stoever, speaking after visiting hospitals run by both AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo American Platinum, two of the biggest gold miners in South Africa, said both companies are doing an  “outstanding" job of finding TB cases and ensuring miners are getting the appropriate treatments but adds that she is sure “some [companies] have better practises than others”.

AngloGold Ashanti say it has had some success in reducing the incidence rate of TB, reducing the incidence rate [percentage of employees who develop TB during the year] in its South African operations from 4.3 per cent in 2006 to 1.8 per cent in 2012. It added that all patients remain in employment throughout the course of their treatment. Despite these positive results the company recognises that “more challenges remain.”

In the wake of the disappointing trial results published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January, Aeras is currently in discussion with the Chamber of Mines in South Africa and many mining executives to find an alternative long-term solution.

Stoever says Aeras wants to create a “virtuous cycle” related to the markets.

She explains: “If we could somehow look at gold  as a commodity, gold as a natural resource, gold as a big driver of economic development in the South Africa region… and figure out a way to create this virtuous cycle where we then put money into the health system to fight infectious diseases like TB and HIV both with our current tools, which have their limitations, but also in research and development, where we really have  our best bet in potentially eliminating TB and HIV with vaccines in the future.”

“This isn’t an act of charity; this is a real bottom line business for families and communities,” she adds.

Anglo-Gold Ashanti also recognise that any long-term solution must be a collaborative one. It says: “The fight against TB is a collective responsibility of all the role players in society – people in their individual capacity, organised business, organised labour and other organs of civil society.”

It adds that it is “willing to partner with like-minded stakeholders to find durable solutions.”

Right now a vaccine seems to be the only viable long-term solution, but Stoever admits that although research and development has improved from no TB vaccine candidates in 2000 to 13 today, six of which Aeras is working on, a usable vaccine is still likely a decade away. The key, as Aeras knows, is keeping up thorough and rigorous treatment of TB and convincing mining companies and the government that a vaccine is worth investing in. No one should have to risk repeated TB infection just from going to work.

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty Images
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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.