TB stalks ex-mine workers

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MASERU — When Pheello Senkhane landed a job at Harmony Gold mine in Welkom in 1970, his dream was to give his family the best in life.

But that dream did not last.

In 1987, Senkhane fell sick. He was later tested and diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB).

Despite this Senkhane claims his employer refused to provide medical care for him.

Two years later, his health deteriorated.

He says he was no longer fit to execute his physically demanding tasks of digging for gold in the bowels of Mother Earth.

A month after he began his long-overdue TB treatment in 1989 Senkhane was retrenched and sent back home to Lesotho.

“I started treatment after I fell very sick.

“I could not eat and had started vomiting blood,” Senkhane said in an interview with the Lesotho Times this week.

“Doctors took a week to stop the vomit.

“They said the TB had worsened because I should have started treatment a long time ago.”

He says his condition was so serious that he had to stay in hospital for three months while his progress was being monitored by doctors.

“They sent me home without compensation for a disease I got working in their mine.

“I tried to convince them to let me stay because I still had to complete my TB treatment but they did not listen,” Senkhane says.

Back in rural Mafeteng, Senkhane had to use all the little money he had sent home to finish his treatment.

“My former employers did not give me any money to pay for my treatment.

“I used most of my retrenchment package to pay the doctors.”

Luckily though Senkhane was confirmed TB-free after months of treatment.

However his medical record meant he could not be employed by any of the mining companies in South Africa.

“No one wanted to hire me because of my TB record.

“I struggled to look after my wife and our six children,” he says.

After years of job-hunting with no luck, a struggling Senkhane says he went back to his employer in 2004 to demand compensation for contracting TB at work.

“It was promising at first.

“They gave me papers to fill and took my finger prints.

“They told me they would send the papers to the headquarters in Gauteng and would call me once my payments were processed.

“I am still waiting for that call until now,” Senkhane says.

To add to the pain, Senkhane says his wife and son died of TB-related illnesses in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

“That was the worst loss in my life.

“It is painful to know that I am the one who could have brought this disease into my family.

“I was supposed to have protected my family and given them a good life but I failed.

“What I brought back home was a disease.”

Senkhane’s story epitomises the plight of thousands of Lesotho former mine workers who contracted TB in South Africa’s gold mines.

The situation is the same in other African countries like Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland where thousands of ex-miners from South Africa’s gold mines were sent home without compensation after contracting TB at work.

Earlier this month, Musa Mkoko from Swaziland, told a gathering of senior government officials from African countries in Johannesburg that he has been battling a TB that later turned into a multi-drug resident TB (MDR-TB) for years.

He said he got the disease while working at a gold mine in South Africa.

“No one cares about ex-miners who are infected with TB.

“I have not been compensated for contracting the disease while at work,” Mkoko said.

He added that his situation had worsened because he is HIV positive, which renders him unfit to work and look after his family.

Mkoko said he has only been able to make it, thanks to his wife, who had to do domestic piece-jobs.

“My family earns very little from her piece jobs and we are not able to meet all our family needs,” he said his voice shaking with emotion.

Thousands of former Basotho miners who were infected with TB and other chest ailments while working in South African mines have since sought help from a South African law firm to file a lawsuit against gold mining firms demanding compensation.

Speaking at a Stop-TB Partnership workshop for journalists in Johannesburg earlier this month, human rights lawyer, Richard Spoor, said it was sad that gold mines had sent their TB-infected workers home to die without compensation.

Spoor said his firm was determined to find those miners and their families and help them get compensation.

According a Reuters report, Spoor has already signed nearly 7 000 Lesotho ex-miners to lodge a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against South African gold mines.

“We’re signing up 500 people a week at the moment,” Spoor told the news agency.

According to the 2011 WHO Global Tuberculosis report, Lesotho has an incidence rate of 633 TB cases per 100 000 people.

This places the country fifth out of 15 countries with the highest per capita incidence.

Speaking during World TB Day celebrations in Maseru on Monday, Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng said the government is determined to eliminate TB as a public health problem.

Ramatlapeng said the World Health Assembly and The Stop TB Partnership are targeting to detect 70 percent of the estimated incidence of sputum smear positive TB.

The partnerships also aims to cure at least 85 percent of newly detected cases of sputum smear-positive TB.

“We are presently looking into TB in the mining sector which affects many Basotho and are equally concerned with TB in congregate settings such as prisons,” Ramatlapeng said.

“It is therefore important that we embrace the 2012 theme from the Stop TB partnership and reaffirm that all that we do, all the interventions we design will be towards attaining “Zero TB Deaths particularly among people living with HIV, Zero Defaulters and Zero not evaluated TB patients if we are to achieve our targets ,” she said.

She added this is now time to scale-up the campaign to realise universal access to TB/HIV services because no one should die from TB’ even if they are HIV infected.

Christian Health Association of Lesotho chief executive secretary, Malentsoe Ntholi, said TB affects economically active people mostly miners and factory workers.

“TB mostly affects miners and factory workers.

“It affects people who are economically active,” Ntholi said.

Llang Maama, head of the National TB Programme, said there is need to establish a clear exchange of TB patients from South African mines so that they can be easily traced to continue with their treatment.

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