The Price of Gold: How mining precious metals is spreading tuberculosis

This piece is a guest post from Melody Kennell, Communications Coordinator at Aeras, a nonprofit biotech advancing tuberculosis vaccines for the world. Visit www.aeras.org to learn more.

What do you get when you take a tight, poorly ventilated space, cram in lots of people with compromised immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, and add constant exposure to silica dust?

Perfect conditions for the rapid spread of tuberculosis.

And where could we find such a potent setting? Look no further than the mines of southern Africa.

Photo by David Rochkind, source: aeras.org/mining

Mine workers in sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates of TB in the world, with levels of active cases and deaths up to 10 times higher than for non-miners. Deep underground, while they dig up gold and platinum, miners are constantly exposed to TB – a disease that is nearly impossible to prevent.

Most mine workers don’t have access to protective masks, and even if they do, wearing a mask in 145-degree Fahrenheit mines is horribly uncomfortable. There is virtually nothing to prevent an uninfected miner from becoming infected when the person next to him in the mine shaft or dormitory bunk is coughing up droplets of bacteria. That’s why nine out of 10 miners are infected with tuberculosis.

Photo by David Rochkind, source: aeras.org/mining

But TB doesn’t just stay in the mines. Mine workers are migratory – many come from remote villages and the neighboring countries of Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. TB spreads when miners travel home, carrying the disease to their families and community members.

New solutions to the TB epidemic are urgently needed.

We need new ways to quickly and cheaply diagnose TB – especially drug-resistant strains. We need new drugs to treat the disease more efficiently and with fewer debilitating side effects. Current treatment regimens last at least 6 months and require a handful of pills each day. And we need new vaccines to protect people from TB in the first place.

In August of 2012, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations released a Declaration on TB in the Mining Sector. While this was a great start to addressing serious issues around living and working conditions in the mines, the critical component of research and development (R&D) for new TB diagnostics, drugs and vaccines was glaringly absent.

Aeras and other organizations focused on ending TB in the mines are collecting signatures to pressure SADC nations to prioritize tuberculosis R&D in their Declaration.

Join the growing coalition working together to end the TB crisis in the mines.

Sign the petition to urge SADC nations to add TB R&D to the agenda. Then help us spread the word.

To learn more about #TBandMining, check out this slideshow.