SONIPAT, India – There are over 300 million deities worshiped in India, but for the people of a small north Indian village, physically-disabled Mehr Singh is the savior.
The schoolteacher with a slight limp starts his day at five in the morning, rides his bicycle or walks from one house to another, knocking on their doors, in search of tuberculosis patients in the shanty village surrounded by swathes of green fields in Sonipat district of Haryana state.
Singh’s mission is to identify patients and create awareness about the disease that carries a social stigma in the country known as the global hot spot of tuberculosis. The Indian government has an ambitious plan to eradicate it by 2025, a decade ahead of the global target year set by the World Health Organization.
With over 2.7 million cases, India is home to one in every four patients across the world suffering from the fatally dangerous bacterial lung disease, according to the WHO.
Despite being preventable and curable, tuberculosis causes nearly half a million deaths every year in the world’s second-most populous country of 1.3 billion people.
Singh, a trained medical volunteer who works for local NGO Mamta that focuses on sensitization and awareness about the disease in vulnerable areas, has to gain people’s trust before they speak up about possible tuberculosis-like symptoms.
“I tell them: ‘Please let me know if anyone is suffering from a persistent cough or has a prolonged fever or loss of appetite or if they have ever coughed up blood. You don’t have to pay me for this,’” Singh told EFE.
Singh visits about 500 houses a month. On average, he detects about six or seven cases a month in the area inhabited mostly by daily-wage laborers.
The teacher is one of the volunteers spread out across 128 Indian districts as part of an initiative by the Paris-headquartered International Union Against Tuberculosis and Pulmonary Diseases (known as The Union).
Their work tools would usually include a list of households, a permanent marker and brochures in Hindi and English that explain tuberculosis treatments and ways to prevent the disease. There is also a kit to collect sputum to send samples to the nearest hospital for medical examination.
“If it turns out that they have tuberculosis, we tell them that we are going to do more tests and insist there is nothing to fear,” Singh said.
Ram Chandra, a villager, was suffering from persistent fever when Singh paid a visit.
“I used to stay indoors as I was weak, that’s when he (pointing toward Singh) came… to my house, collected sputum and got it tested,” said Chandra, a TB-positive patient.
“He has been a savior for us, he helps the poor. I cannot afford to receive treatment in a private hospital. But he brought me the medicines,” he told EFE.
Patients in India usually hesitate to open up about the disease for the stigma it carries, which is one of the major factors for huge tuberculosis mortality rate in the country.
According to Singh, women suffer the most and “if an unmarried girl is diagnosed with TB, families hide it” for the fear of not being able to find a marriage partner if the disease is revealed.
“Stigma happens to everybody but it affects young girls and women more disproportionately,” said Jamhoih Tonsing, who heads The Union’s Southeast Asia branch.
Ending tuberculosis is a major task for India. Although there has been a decline of about 1.5 percent in the number of cases in recent years, the country is still far from meeting the goal set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But experts are of the view that positive signs have emerged since the government tripled its budget between 2016 and 2018 to fight the disease.
More money also means a possibility of giving direct financial aid to patients of about 500 Indian rupees (around $7) per month for six months, according to Aswani, chief physician at a public hospital in Sonipat located few kilometers from Singh’s village.
But for the volunteer, money is hardly an issue. “I love my job. And when a patient heals after receiving treatment for six months, they respect me and that makes me very happy.”