Gold mining is an exceedingly important part of South Africa’s economy. Nearly half of the world’s stores of the precious metal lie under South African soil, and they produce over 10 percent of the global supply every year. With exports on the order of $4 billion, gold alone is roughly one percent of South Africa’s GDP. However, the great economic benefit of a strong mining industry also brings risks for disease, including tuberculosis (TB). Out of all the gold mining operations in the world, “the highest number of new TB cases annually” occur in South Africa, according to its Department of Health.
Tuberculosis is a disease which is transmitted through the air. When someone carrying an active group of Mycobacterium tuberculosis coughs, sneezes, or even speaks, others nearby can breathe in the expelled bacteria and become infected themselves. However, not all those in whom the bacterium resides actually display symptoms, so it can be difficult to determine who is a carrier with the naked eye. Fortunately, simply carrying the disease does not make one a contagion factor; the bacteria must be active and multiplying to cause someone to fall ill and become contagious.
When someone is infected with tuberculosis, they suffer from chest pain and coughing fits which can expel blood, often along with a lack of appetite and overall fatigue. TB can be detected by either a skin test or a blood test, at which point a drug regimen of at least six months is prescribed. However, in populations where such medicine is not readily accessible or affordable, tuberculosis remains a killer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only five percent of deaths from tuberculosis occur in high-income countries. The same fact sheet claims that TB “is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent;” worldwide figures number 8.7 million infections and 1.4 million deaths in 2011. The disease is even more dangerous to those who do suffer from HIV/AIDS; when one’s immune system is compromised by the latter disease, the former can kill much more easily. In South Africa, where the HIV/AIDS rate is nearly 1 in 5, this dangerous interaction weighs quite heavily.
South Africa has been taking action to combat its particularly nasty TB problems in its gold mining industry. In 2012, studies reported that nearly 13 times as many miners die from tuberculosis than from mining accidents; the rate of infection amongst miners is nearly three times as high as that of the general population. As a result, the country initiated an overarching plan to test every single miner in the country, and to treat those found to be carrying the disease. Additionally, in August 2012, the South African Development Community’s heads of state collectively signed the SADC Declaration on TB in the Mining Sector, where they committed to “moving towards a vision of zero new infections, zero stigma and discrimination, and zero deaths.” The declaration of several priority sectors for government intervention demonstrates the significant steps that southern African countries are taking to eradicate the scourge of tuberculosis from the region.
– Jake Simon
Sources: Mail & Guardian, WHO