…So said Gerry Elsdon, the very svelte TV broadcaster from South Africa, during the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (TB Alliance), during the 41st Union World Conference on Lung Health, Berlin, Germany (11-15 November 2010).
In an exclusive interview given to CNS, she told her fascinating story, giving first hand information about the problems she faced as a TB patient, despite her celebrity status. She is currently a goodwill brand ambassador for the Red Cross Society, spreading awareness about the dreaded disease and breaking many myths related to TB.
Gerry contracted the disease 10 years ago (but fully cured now), almost at the same time when TB Alliance was born. It was a chance infertility test which diagnosed tuberculosis of the womb. She remembers her initial reaction of shock and disbelief-how could it happen to her? She was rich, successful, young and a public figure.
With the diagnosis came the daunting feeling that she had something which she could not overcome. But she not only overcame TB but also the stigma and the myths attached with it – the myths that it was a poor man’s disease, that if she was TB positive, she must be HIV positive too. She realized (and many of us forget that) as the disease is airborne, it can be contracted by anyone, from anywhere, transcending borders of cast, creed and status. She had to battle the fear that others might discover her problem, which could affect her career.
Another hurdle was to find a clinic for treatment. At that time there were HIV clinics all over South Africa (including Cape Town from where she comes), but a TB clinic was difficult to find. TB was more of a hush- hush affair, like HIV-YES; TUBERCULOSIS NO. She decided to first find a doctor and then make enough noise to rattle the community and government out of its slumber. Eventually she managed to get on the treatment in a poorly ventilated clinic, where she encouraged the other patients to just pull out their chairs to sit in open sunlight.
It was then that she decided to become an advocate for TB patients and make a lot of noise about this silent killer. She was no longer afraid and was on the cover of a popular women’s magazine with the headline: “The positive face of TB”. Thus began a relentless campaign against this dreaded disease.
There is a lot of stigma attached to infertility in rural areas of South Africa, (this is very true of even affluent urban families in India), thus preventing diagnosis of genital TB in women. Hence an open dialogue is very important, as has already happened in the case of HIV/AIDS. Gerry is lending her voice to millions of silent, faceless, voiceless patients, especially women. She is the Goodwill Brand Ambassador for Red Cross Society (which works on TB in 30 countries) and works together with other women volunteers to bring TB out from dark closets (where TB germs survive) into open light (which will destroy it).
Her key message, as communicated through CNS, is “When you breathe out, I breathe in. So we are all responsible for each other, and should see that the air we breathe is clean, and get tested for TB for the sake of your family.”
Let all of us -women and men- join hands to fight and work together for better diagnostic, treatment and care facilities for the affected communities with a view to eradicate the scourge of TB from the face of the earth.