Dressed in a dark jacket, rain is pelting Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola’s face as she rushes past bare trees in Geneva, Switzerland. Along with her two children, Dubula-Majola has newly moved into a house in nearby Genthod, from where she commutes to work by train.
In October, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis [TB] and Malaria, appointed Dubula-Majola as head of their community, rights and gender department. The Global Fund has allocated tens of billions of dollars around the world to fight HIV since its inception in 2002.
Five weeks into the job, Dubula-Majola tells Spotlight that a big challenge for her will be to hone a new tool – that of diplomacy.
Laughing, the former General Secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) says that in the past, diplomacy has not been her greatest strength.
“In this new job, I am required to be diplomatic,” she says. “Basically, diplomacy is being nice in the face of atrocities, and I am not that person. So it will be a huge challenge for me, it’s going to take a shift. I will have to keep asking myself, ‘what value I can add in this position?’ While developing new tools and new ways of fighting, without being the noisy person in the room.”
The power of collective action
Known for not mincing her words, the activist-scholar is talking to Spotlight over Zoom while walking to the Global Fund’s offices in central Geneva. She adds: “Activists don’t like bureaucracies by nature, but you have a voice here. You have political currency to shift things. It’s a tough one, but I’m there.”
In a 2014 TedX talk hosted in London, an inflamed Dubula-Majola told the audience that she is angry – angry with her father, angry with her government, angry at everyone. But that she was using her anger to fuel her work.
While she is in Switzerland, Dubula-Majola’s heart still brims with African proverbs, such as: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” She has experienced the power of such collective action first-hand at the TAC, but now she’ll be applying it on a different stage. Indeed, her new job is “to ensure that the Global Fund strongly engages civil society and promotes human rights and gender equality”, with a particular focus on supporting community led organisations.
As a role model for her new diplomatic duties, Dubula-Majola cites American public health official Loyce Pace. “Loyce Pace who runs the health program in the United States government, she is very effective in what she does while hardly saying anything in public. But she is shifting norms – bringing priority to black and poor people. She uses her allies and many other people similar to her to say things louder than she could…I guess this is another step of growth in my activist journey – to still be as effective, as radical, the very same eagerness and passion, but silently.”
‘There was no time to dream’
Dubla-Majola grew up in a village near Dutywa in the Eastern Cape. Aged 22 in Cape Town in 2001, she spiralled with depression after being diagnosed with HIV. But instead of resigning herself to what was then still a death sentence for most people, she joined the TAC – working night shifts at the McDonalds drive-through in Green Point, while by day she joined the fight to bring antiretrovirals and other medicines to South Africa.
“As a 22-year-old, I did not have fun, there was no time to dream,” she recalls. “I was fighting for my life and the lives of others. I never thought I would have children, I never thought I would get married, I never thought I would love again. Because there was also the issue of who infected me, how did this happen? You start resenting relationships.”
At the forefront of social justice activism for most of South Africa’s young democracy – a role model for people living with HIV, and for those fighting inequality – Dubula-Majola lead the TAC from 2007 to 2013, after which she joined Sonke Gender Justice as director of policy and accountability. She holds an MA in HIV/AIDS management from Stellenbosch University; her PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal examined “grassroots policy participation after a movement has succeeded to push for policy change,” using MSF’s [Médecins Sans Frontières] pioneering antiretroviral sites in Khayelitsha and Lusikisiki as samples.
‘Build and regain the dignity of poor people’
In 2018, when Stellenbosch University offered her a job as director of its Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management, Dubula-Majola was circumspect. Why take up appointment at a white male-dominated institution shackled by slow transformation, in an elitist town? But she took on the challenge to become the transformation she wanted to see.
Dubula-Majola tells Spotlight that while relishing the privilege of academia – a space to reflect – it saw her away from “the heat of the activist fire” for too long. Five years later, a new challenge awaits.
Reflecting on Stellenbosch, she says: “This [job at the Global Fund] is even harder, because it’s not just one country, one university. This is all the continents of the world. All of them facing the same thing, the struggle here is to build and regain the dignity of poor people around the globe.”
Despite her early misgivings about relationships, Dubula-Majola married fellow TAC activist, Mandla Majola. Their children, now aged 10 and 16, are HIV-negative. Presently Majola is helping with their friend Zackie Achmat’s independent campaign for the 2024 general elections, after which he will join his wife in Geneva. The family will unite in Switzerland for Christmas though – “which will be the most miserable and cold Christmas,” says Dubula-Majola, laughing. “It will be our first winter Christmas and our last. As we just arrived a month ago, it doesn’t make sense to travel back to South Africa for the holidays.”
Overall she says she remains hopeful, adding that movements like #MeTo are lessons in global solidarity.
Her thoughts on continuing the fight against HIV: “It is up to HIV positive people, and those who want to remain HIV negative, to steer towards an AIDS-free generation. We must stop complaining, thinking politicians will do everything for us, and do it ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Global Fund representatives have voiced confidence in Dubula-Majola’s ability to lead. Marijke Wijnroks, head of the organisation’s strategic investment and impact division, said in a statement: “Following an extensive search process, I am delighted to say that we found the ideal person for this role. As a person living with HIV, Vuyiseka’s lived experience and leadership style are well aligned to what we need from this critical role.”
Note: Dubula-Majola is a former General Secretary of the TAC. Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the TAC, but is editorially independent – an independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.
The National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill was approved by the National Council of Provinces today and is due to be signed into law by the president shortly after. The Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF) is deeply disappointed. We are not happy with the various sections of the Bill. Despite submissions to government in this regard, the recommendations of the BHF and other stakeholders have largely been ignored and the bill is being passed virtually unchanged from its originally drafted form.
While the BHF fully supports the concept of universal health coverage (UHC) as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) and believes that it must be a strategic imperative for all those directly or indirectly involved in healthcare, it does not support the NHI Bill in its current form. The bill restricts medical schemes to the provision of complementary cover potentially rendering them unsustainable, further to which the enormous economic value that medical schemes currently add to the health sector would be lost to South Africa if the bill goes ahead unchanged, BHF strongly believes this section should be removed as well as all references to complementary cover contained in the bill.
Additionally, a number of the Bill’s provisions are unconstitutional. These were detailed in the BHF’s submission to government. South Africa needs a strong, vibrant private health sector because government resources will never be unlimited. . The incredibly wide powers it bestows on the Minister of Health grossly undermine the board of the NHI fund and its accountability. The power of the Benefit Advisory Committee to determine health benefits under NHI similarly undermines this accountability. In addition, the BHF is perturbed by the demonstrated inability of the state to adequately operate national public entities and state-owned enterprises, as well as the endless levels of relentless corruption in the public sector.
The Bill allows the Minister of Health and the NHI fund to issue directives that override all other legislation, except the PFMA and the Constitution, including legislation specifically mandated by the Constitution.
There are proposed amendments to the Medical Schemes Act that unfairly discriminate against pregnant women.
In many instances, the language of the bill creates significant legal uncertainty, which is itself unconstitutional due to the principle of the rule of law upheld by the Constitution. The BHF provided specific examples of this in the body of its submission.
The NHI Bill allows the national sphere of government to encroach on the geographical, functional and institutional integrity of provincial governments. This is not permitted by Section 41 of the Constitution.
The bill tries to dictate to the President in Cabinet (the National Executive) what new legislation must be made or how to amend existing legislation. This is also unconstitutional, as the Constitution itself grants the National Executive its powers. Nothing can change this except an amendment to the Constitution.
The registration system proposed by the bill creates unconstitutional barriers to access to health care that do not currently exist. The certification, accreditation and contracting system proposed by the bill is unwieldy, and it too will create unconstitutional barriers to access to health care that currently do not exist. Both these points are explained further in the body of the BHF’s submission.
Dr Katlego Mothudi, BHF CEO, underscores these serious implications of the bill’s being passed unchanged. “We have consistently given input into this proposed law and are disappointed that our concerns and those of other stakeholders appear not to have been considered or even tested. The bill in its current form will have a negative impact on healthcare access for everyone. There are many areas of uncertainty that have not been clarified, not least with regard to funding and affordability. We are also concerned specifically that the bill may prejudice the rights of women,” he says. “The proposed amendments to the Medical Schemes Act exclude access to pregnancy-related healthcare services for women who are medical scheme members. This means that these women would have to access reproductive health care from the public sector at their own cost, which is in conflict with the provisions of the National Health Act.
“The bill also has the potential for a wider negative economic impact. There is still uncertainty around how the NHI will be funded, but it will very likely be through additional taxation, something that will unavoidably have a detrimental effect on the economy at large – companies, individual employees and the general public – in the form of job losses. This phenomenon has already been discussed in various papers, including one published by the World Bank in 2001. It cited Colombia’s experience in this regard. A 10% increase in payroll taxes resulted in a 4.9% reduction in employment. Those who remained employed experienced a reduction in their disposable income, while the decrease in the overall number of employees saw a reduction in revenue from personal tax. Should the bill pass in its current form, South Africa will almost certainly experience something very similar.
“More specifically, this phenomenon will also impact the health sector. With medical schemes reduced to providing only complementary cover, not only will the schemes industry itself shrink, but all the other private entities it does business with, including hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and health practitioners,” he concludes.
On 29 October, during its annual scientific meeting at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, the South African Heart Association (SA Heart®) met with members of the National Department of Health (NDoH), Council for Medical Schemes (CMS), South African Medical Association, medical aid industry, pharmaceutical and medical device industry, as well as the Global Heart Hub – which supports patient advocacy for cardiovascular disease – with the intention to develop an advocacy forum to create a more empowered and engaged community of patients living with cardiovascular disease.
During the symposium, SA Heart® emphasised the cardiac profession’s difficulty in obtaining approval and full reimbursement for the evidence-based treatments, shown to improve patient outcomes. The rules and regulations surrounding the availability of treatments, variously determined by the NDoH, the CMS and funders, currently inhibit access to effective cardiovascular disease management. SA Heart®, an affiliate member of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), adopts the ESC’s guidelines as its own, supplemented by consensus statements that take prevailing local circumstances into account. Instead of following the up-to-date recommendations of the ESC, both the NDoH and various private sector funders rather give preference to the CMS algorithms that are years out of date. These anachronisms determine standards of care, despite ongoing advances in evidence-based medicine.
Prescribed Minimum Benefits (PMB’s) are a set of defined benefits to ensure that all medical scheme members have continuous access to defined minimum health services, regardless of the benefit option they select. PMB’s are limited in their reach. Private sector funders often retreat behind rules and regulations within the state sector, as to the type and level of treatment that they approve. Each funder independently determines what will be funded and at what level. Based upon their unique Health Technology Assessments, each funder then decides what treatment is approved or declined. It is unfair to restrict treatment to what is available only in the state sector. Novel therapies could be more widely available if there were more constructive agreements between state and industry. The CMS is currently reviewing the PMB package and defining patient entitlement.
SA Heart® pointed out that physicians are at the interface between the patient and the funder. Frequently, the patient misunderstands their own relationship with their medical aid and may deem the practitioner responsible for limitations imposed on his/her treatment. The administrative burden on clinicians is often intolerable, requiring repeat motivations, chronic medication forms, PMB applications and telephone calls to funders.
During the symposium pertinent questions were raised around funder and regulator reimbursement decisions, as well as the obscure mechanisms governing the pricing of medicines and devices. SA Heart® also raised concerns about the future of both the public and private healthcare system. A balance between the two sectors is a delicate one, requiring careful policy decisions to ensure that both systems will contribute effectively to the overall health of our country. Debates often focus around issues of equity and quality of service. The idea of centralizing decisions and distribution in the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors can be seen as an effort to ensure equitable access to essential medicines and equipment. However, this approach could negatively impact the ability to cater for South Africa’s diverse and specific needs – with more bureaucracy and inefficiency.
The meeting was called to determine interest amongst the various parties in establishing a forum to find solutions to these problems, and to harmonise the regulations around access to both medications and devices. The panellists were unanimous in their agreement that the current rules, regulations and disparities between the public and private sectors need to be reworked and there was consensus that a forum should be created to continue these discussions and arrive at effective, durable solutions. SA Heart® committed to driving this process, and will regularly engage all stakeholders in future meetings, with the ultimate goal of improving patient access to innovative cardiovascular treatments.
Renowned clinician, researcher and educator Professor Harry Seftel has passed away at the age of 94. For many, he was well-known for his radio appearances concerning health and medicine. Hailed as a “national treasure” by President Cyril Ramaphoa, Prof Seftel contributed greatly to the study of non-communicable diseases in South African populations and was a strident critic of apartheid.
The Wits Faculty of Health Science posted on Twitter/X: “The Faculty mourns the passing of Professor Harry Seftel, distinguished professor of medicine at @WitsUniversity. Renowned for making complex medical issues accessible to all, Prof. Seftel was a passionate advocate for health promotion.”
Born on 28 December 1928, Harold Cecil Seftel became an intern at Baragwanath Hospital in 1953 shortly after receiving his medical degree, and by 1982 was Professor of Medicine and Chief Physician at Hillbrow Hospital.
An outstanding clinician, he contributed greatly to the categorisation of infectious and non-infectious diseases among Black South Africans. He held numerous positions and received an honourary law degree from Wits.
His research interests focussed on diseases with a high prevalence in various South African populations: oral iron overload, cryptogenic cardiomyopathy and arterial hypertension among Black Africans; coronary artery disease and diabetes mellitus among Asians and familial hypercholesterolaemia among Afrikaaners.
He encouraged research at many levels, authoring more than 200 publications in fields ranging from endocrinology to infective diseases. In doing so, he collaborated with many of the finest minds in their fields, locally and internationally.
Not content with confining his teaching to academia, he also educated the general public with presentations in the media, becoming a familiar face over the years. He became known for many catchphrases, with “trust no one, least of all yourself” being one of his most revealing.
Prof Seftel was also friends with Nelson Mandela, having met him at Wits University. While Nelson Mandela was in prison, he heard one of Prof Seftel’s broadcasts and reduced his salt intake to help with the health problems he suffered throughout his incarceration. Not surprisingly, Prof Seftel was a strident critic of apartheid and the gross inequalities it produced.
In his 1973 inaugural lecture at Wits, he said of the distribution of medical service South Africa: “The present situation is deplorable and shameful. The man from Mars who is due here shortly would find it quite incomprehensible. In particular he would find our system of priorities wholly illogical and immoral.”
The state of South Africa’s mental well-being is a cause for concern
In Aon’s 2024 Global Medical Trend Rates Report, mental health is listed as a major contributor to morbidity, disability, injury and premature mortality; also increasing the risk of other health conditions. The state of South Africa’s mental wellbeing is cause for concern. The world has witnessed several major events that have also had widespread impacts on people’s mental health. Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, economic uncertainties, social unrest and warfare have heightened stress levels and contributed to an increased focus on mental well-being.
South Africans are distressed and struggling with their mental health:
In Sapien Labs’ Mental State of the World 2022 report, South Africa was ranked as the country with the highest percentage (35.8%) of its population that are distressed and struggling with mental health.
Another prominent trend highlighted in the Sapien Labs report is the declining mental well-being of each successively younger generation. This is reflected in the Western Cape Government’s report on anxiety, depression and adolescent suicide which found that 9% of all teenage deaths are due to suicide.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than 700 000 people die by suicide every year, with South Africa rated as the country with the ninth highest suicide rate in the world at 23.5 per 100k, with suicide alarmingly being the fourth leading cause of death among 15 – 19-year-olds.
A WITS University study found that a quarter (25.7%) of South Africans are depressed with only a quarter of these affected individuals seeking assistance.
According to Jacqui Nel, business unit head of healthcare at Aon South Africa, depression is likely to be the world’s leading burden of disease by the year 2030, if not sooner. “It is easy to measure an individual’s weight, Body Mass Index (BMI), glucose and cholesterol levels, but it is much harder to measure what is going on in a person’s mind. The top challenge that human resource professionals are concerned with is keeping the workforce engaged and productive in the face of ongoing retrenchments, the spiralling cost of living, load shedding and the fact that 44% of South Africans have impaired credit records. All these factors are converging to create enormous contributory pressures when it comes to anxiety levels experienced by employees,” says Jacqui.
One of the leading trends in the mental well-being of employees is burnout, which places employees at risk of developing depression. It was classified as an occupational phenomenon in 2019 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with its occurrence rate increasing on an annual basis, and it has only escalated since the onset of the pandemic and the radical changes to work models since then. “Employees that are burnt out feel exhausted, distance themselves from their colleagues and their job and show a reduction in professional efficacy,” Jacqui explains.
Finding a sustainable work-life balance model
These factors are clear indicators that there is something radically amiss in our work-life balance, and we need to do better as a society and employers in embracing a more sustainable work-life model that is cognisant of the forces that are at play in the workforce environment. “It starts by building resilience, agility and a sense of belonging at an individual and organisational level, and most of all, better support structures,” Jacqui explains.
Workforce resilience describes a person’s fundamental sense of security at work, a strong sense of belonging with the employer and the adaptability and motivation they need to reach their full potential. “Workforce resilience matters because businesses that put their people first are more likely to thrive. By creating a workplace environment that provides security, motivation and belonging, employees and colleagues are better able to weather and process the fiercest of storms and pressures,” Jacqui explains.
Workforce agility describes a workforce that thrives on and embraces change rather than being threatened by it, a workforce that can develop future skills at speed and naturally pivots to stand out from the competition – all the while balancing investment and people risk with agility, creating value for the employer and the customer, alike.
“By investing in impactful Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), employers empower their employees to better measure their progress and manage risk, enabling a diverse, inclusive and agile workforce. Workforce agility is the difference between merely surviving and thriving,” says Jacqui.
“It may even extend beyond an EAP, with organisations implementing programmes that are specific to the organisation’s challenges. Insights that are underscored by data and analytics, will be able to identify employee trends and concerns, enabling employers to wisely spend money where it is most required within the wellness of employees,” she adds.
Belonging describes a connection to a community of peers and the support that each individual feels in relation to their working environment. “It is important because it enables a positive working life experience and underpins personal and professional growth, providing a voice and an opportunity to use it and be heard, regardless of role or rank. All the while, supporting wellbeing whilst driving diversity and innovation,” Jacqui explains.
“Fostering a sense of belonging in an employee starts by assessing how well the personality traits of a possible candidate align with the cultural fit of the organisation during the recruitment phase. It also extends to how well employees are supported during their time in the organisation, allowing them to naturally become agents of change and role models for the organisation’s culture by living the company ethos and way of operating to inspire adoption throughout,” Jacqui explains.
At the heart of this entire process, is the implementation of a well-rounded Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) that is designed to support employees in dealing with personal and work-related stressors that may affect their well-being, mental health and productivity. This could include:
Confidential counselling sessions.
Assessments of an employee’s situation and referral to the correct counselling and support.
Crisis intervention for employees who are dealing with trauma such as bereavement, have been victims of violent crime or gender-based violence.
Offering work-life services that could range from finding childcare to legal assistance or financial planning.
Offering educational workshops and seminars on aspects such as personal finance through to health and wellbeing.
Wellness programmes that promote healthy habits and stress reduction and management techniques.
Consultation for managers and supervisors.
“There has been a significant increase in awareness and understanding of mental health issues as efforts by mental health advocates, employer groups and individuals have contributed to destigmatising mental health. This increased awareness has led to more open conversations about mental health in various sectors of society and it is here where Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) play a crucial role in supporting employers and opening the doors for candid conversations and getting the needed help and support. The services of a trusted and skilled advisor are key in helping organisations develop and operate an EAP that is fit for your business and your people and their unique circumstances. “
“While there is a cost involved that is carried by the business, the results far outweigh the investment. It’s about providing employees and management with the means to weather the storms of an increasingly complex world of work, find a balance in their personal lives and come out on the other side with resilient and agile people who have a strong sense of belonging and purpose. This is about supporting employees to manage stress, improve productivity, and enhance their overall quality of life and wellbeing, which in turn improves workplace dynamics, contributing to a positive and productive work environment where skilled and valued employees want to be,” Jacqui concludes.
For decades, the standard way to prevent people who were exposed to tuberculosis (TB) from falling ill with the disease was to offer them a medicine called isoniazid, taken daily for six or more months. That changed in the last decade with the development of new preventive therapy regimens that are taken for four, three, or even just one month.
One complexity, however, is that both isoniazid and the new regimens are much better at preventing normal drug-sensitive TB than they are at preventing drug-resistant forms of TB. This is not surprising. As explained by Paediatric Infectious Disease doctor and Professor of Global Child Health at Imperial College London, Dr James Seddon, the two drugs that have mainly been used to prevent drug-susceptible TB are isoniazid and rifampicin (rifampicin’s sister drug rifapentine is also used). Now, by definition, he explains multidrug-resistant (MDR) TB is resistant to both these drugs so it’s unlikely to have any impact.
The situation is particularly tricky when it comes to children. In a 2020 statement the World Health Organization (WHO) says that it estimated that worldwide between 25 000 and 32 000 children develop MDR-TB each year, and mainly acquire it through transmission from close contact with an adult or adolescent who has MDR-TB. According to Seddon, while there is some emerging observational evidence on the use of drugs other than isoniazid and rifampicin to prevent MDR-TB, there has been no clinically tested regimen to give to children following MDR-TB exposure.
Now, much anticipated results from a phase three trial has shown that a single antibiotic pill, given daily for six months, is safe and effective to use in children who have been exposed to MDR-TB.
Results from TB CHAMP
The trial, called TB-CHAMP, looked at the efficacy and safety of using the antibiotic levofloxacin to prevent TB in children exposed to MDR-TB. Top-line findings from the study was presented last week at the Union World Lung Conference held in Paris, France.
“The paediatric population is probably the most neglected of all the populations affected by MDR-TB,” Dr Anneke Hesseling, Director of the Paediatric TB Research Programme at Stellenbosch University, told the conference. “Fewer than 20% who develop MDR-TB disease are actually diagnosed and treated, and so to find more cases and prevent more cases is really, really critical…So prevention is really key, and the TB-CHAMP trial is really a phase three efficacy trial looking at levofloxacin to prevent new cases of TB in children and also looking at the safety of levofloxacin.”
Hesseling, who is the Principal Investigator of the study, says that TB-CHAMP is the first trial to provide clinical data on what drug might be used to prevent TB in children who have been exposed to MDR-TB. It was conducted at five sites across South Africa, all with high MDR-TB burdens. The study was led by Stellenbosch University and the Desmund Tutu TB Centre. The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
922 children were randomised to receive either levofloxacin or a placebo for six months. 453 children got levofloxacin and 469 got the placebo. The primary efficacy data featured data from 916 of those children, with 451 in the levofloxacin arm and 465 in the placebo arm.
Hesseling says that only children who were exposed to an adult in their household with confirmed MDR-TB were included in the study. At first children below the age of five were recruited, regardless of their TB infection status. Later children between the ages of five and 17 were included, but they had to either have a TB infection or be living with HIV. The majority of the children, 90%, were younger than five years. TB infection was confirmed with a blood test.
By 48 weeks, Hesseling says five children in the levofloxacin arm versus 12 in the placebo arm developed TB, which amounts to an incidence rate of 1.1% in the levofloxacin arm, and 2.6% in the placebo arm.
Implication of results
“While TB preventive therapy (TPT) has long been recommended and available for young child contacts of people with drug-susceptible TB, there has not been sufficient evidence to make strong recommendations for treatment that could prevent DR-TB. Therefore, the TB-CHAMP findings are critically important for a number of reasons,” says Professor Guy Marks, President and Interim Executive Director, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union).
“The study provides the first high-quality evidence that DR-TB can be prevented in children by using six months of daily levofloxacin, and that this is a safe medication. Furthermore, this will encourage more community-based contact screening, which will also lead to early detection of children and contacts of all ages who already have disease, and initiate treatment,” he adds.
“The impact [of the TB-CHAMP results] is potentially tremendous as it would prevent DR TB among child contacts. DR TB is more complex to treat and cure and often children are marginalised, so this study puts the spotlight on an effective way to protect children. This is not just about the life and health of the child but the social, economic and mental health implications for the caregiver and the entire family,” says Dr Priashni Subrayen, Technical Director for TB at The Aurum Institute.
Seddon, who is also one of the Co-PIs for the study, tells Spotlight that it was important to establish the safety of levofloxacin since it belongs to a class of drugs called the fluoroquinolones, which were thought to have terrible side effects when used in children.
Results from TB-CHAMP show that this is not the case.
The side effects were mild, and the regimen was well tolerated, according to Hesseling, with only eight children having a grade one or higher adverse event in the levofloxacin arm compared to four in the placebo arm. Two deaths were reported, one in each study arm, but were unrelated to the study. Overall, six children in the levofloxacin arm discontinued treatment or left the study early.
Researchers from TB-CHAMP collaborated with researchers from the V-QUIN trial – a phase three study that looked at levofloxacin as TB prevention in adults in Vietnam – in order to combine their data which allowed them to show data for levofloxacin across different age groups. Seddon explains: “They’ve applied a novel analytic approach, which uses a Bayesian, or probabilistic, framework, where we take the results of TB-CHAMP and we say well, if we actually use some of the information from V-QUIN to inform the TB-CHAMP results, we can make that a slightly more confident estimate,” he says.
The combined results, according to Hesseling were able to also show that levofloxacin reduced the risk of TB by about 60% across the age spectrum but with a tighter confidence interval, indicating a more precise estimate of the effect.
Seddon tells Spotlight that the combined data showed that there were no serious adverse events, but the adult population experienced more grade one and grade two side effects than the children, but these went away either over time or when the drug was stopped. The side effects included inflammation in the joints and tendons, which is a known side effect of this class of drug.
Not a silver bullet
While the findings could be a game-changer and potentially inform MDR-TB prevention guidelines, particularly in children, the regimen is by no means a silver bullet. Seddon says that while the regimen was safe, when participants were asked whether they liked the medicine, more people said they didn’t like it in the levofloxacin group versus the placebo. Another downside is that the pill was an adult formulation and thus needed to be cut and/or crushed for the kids to swallow.
Seddon explains that the WHO, who have been provided with the data from both studies and expected to meet in early December, would need to consider a variety of factors before deciding what to recommend about the use of levofloxacin for prevention. That includes the fact that you need to treat a lot of children for six months who might not have TB despite being exposed in order to prevent a few cases.
“You have to weigh up the benefits versus the risks and the risks are low, but it is still giving a drug for six months to children and most of them don’t need it. But the consequences of getting MDR-TB are so bad that we really want to prevent that,” he says.
There is also the question around what effect using a broad antibiotic as preventive treatment will have on the microbiome of children and how this might drive resistance to the fluoroquinolones. Seddon says stool samples were collected from the study participants to determine how the drug affected a child’s microbiome and the potential for driving resistance. These data will also be provided to the WHO.
“I think that the evidence base is now very strong on the basis of these two trials. I think you can really say the issue of whether levofloxacin prevents MDR-TB, we’ve put that to bed,” he says. “Are there going to be other studies? Yes. I think that this is not over, levofloxacin is not the perfect drug for preventive therapy.”
Marks adds to this saying: “An important next step for TPT in DR-TB contacts will be studies that evaluate regimens that are shorter than six months – a long time to take medication every day, which can often be challenging. Effective and safe shorter regimens are now being used for child contacts of drug-susceptible TB and we hope the same progress can be made for contacts of DR-TB.”
As Marks has already stated, currently there are no strong recommendations for MDR-TB prevention by the WHO. In the 2020 TB prevention guidelines, it recommends that the preventative treatment for MDR-TB should be either a fluroquinolone or other second-line agent. It does however caution that these recommendations are based on low-quality evidence. Because of this, it recommends that the preventative treatment for MDR-TB should be individualised, and it be based on the drug resistance profile of the presumed contact. The drugs levofloxacin and moxifloxacin- both fluoroquinolones – may be used unless resistance is suspected. For levofloxacin a dosing schedule for both adults and children are proposed in the document.
Subrayen says that in South Africa the 2019 guidelines for the management of Rifampicin Resistant-TB (RR-TB) does indicate the use of levofloxacin as prevention treatment. The guidelines state that for prevention treatment a fluoroquinolone-based, multidrug regimen is preferred (either levofloxacin and high-dose isoniazid or levofloxacin, high-dose isoniazid and ethambutol). And if exposed to fluoroquinolone-resistant RR-TB, then high-dose isoniazid could be given. Delamanid could be considered as a potential option in very select cases. A training manual published this year by the Department of Health suggests that levofloxacin can be given on its own – but also stresses that the evidence base is weak, something that TB-CHAMP has presumably now changed.
Future of TPT
Seddon says that in a perfect world the ideal TB preventive regimen would be a so-called Pan regimen that could be given for a short period of time, to someone who has been exposed to TB and it works regardless of whether they had been exposed to drug-susceptible or drug-resistant TB.
“There are studies planned to use other drugs for prevention. There’s a study planned to use bedaquiline for a month or two and potentially using injectables that you just have to give once every couple of weeks. So, I think although this [levofloxacin] is a good option now, and it’s probably the best option we have now, this is not perfect,” Seddon says.
The study Seddon is referring to is the BREACH-TB study, a phase three trial that will look at whether a one-month treatment regimen of oral bedaquiline could prevent all forms of tuberculosis. It would be given to people exposed to both drug-resistant and drug-susceptible TB, and in people with HIV infection, including pregnant women and children.
Responding to questions from Spotlight earlier this year when this study was announced in the press, Sonya Krishnan, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and Eric Nuermberger, Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said that they anticipate recruiting between 1600 and 2 00 people to take part in the study – they expect around 400 to 500 of these will be people living with HIV. They also said that the control arm will receive the current standard of care in the country rather than placebo.
When asked whether any South African study sites will be included in the clinical trial, they said, “We very much plan to partner with study sites in South Africa. South Africa has a long-standing history of research excellence in TB.”
“A shorter regimen that fights both drug-resistant and drug-susceptible TB would be a game-changer for those living with TB and get us closer to our shared goal of ending the epidemic by 2030,” said Dr. Atul Gawande, USAID assistant administrator for Global Health, in a statement on the study. “This clinical trial will lay the foundation for a remarkable innovation in our fight against TB: a single-dose, long-acting injectable medicine.”
Indeed, if the science and development pans out as Gawande suggests it might, the future of TB preventive therapy might well be an entire course of therapy delivered through a single injection rather than a month or more of pills. As indicated in an article in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, work is already underway on the development of bedaquline, isoniazid, and rifapentine long-acting injections – though the research is for now still only in mice.
‘Communities need to be involved’
Hesseling raises the point that when treating or preventing TB, more than just the latest research advancement is needed to improve TB outcomes.
“For me treatment follows diagnosis, actually strengthening healthcare services, making communities more aware and creating demand for kids accessing diagnosis, preventive treatment and appropriate treatment, is actually where it starts,” she says. “So tools are amazing, but we actually need to have strong, effective healthcare services and knowledgeable, empowered communities.”
Seddon adds to this saying that results like those from TB-CHAMP are “a bit irrelevant if it is all kind of top down, paternalistic coming from the researchers, coming from the health system”.
“We really need to generate a community demand for this, where individuals living in communities where this is a problem are calling for this and getting angry about this and demanding it in a way that I think we’ve achieved very well with the HIV community,” he says. “It’s all well and good doing the science and then even better to get it [levofloxacin] into a guideline, but until there’s real demand for from the end user, I think it’s only going to have a certain amount of reach.”
Note: The terms DR-TB and MDR-TB are used somewhat interchangeably – Spotlight uses DR-TB to refer to drug-resistant forms of TB in general and MDR-TB to refer specifically to TB that is resistant to isoniazid and rifampicin.
A coherent, achievable path to universal health coverage now imperative
Glaring voids highlighted in submissions on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill threaten South Africa’s path to equitable healthcare access for all, cautions the Health Funders Association (HFA). The organisation has voiced its profound concern, emphasising the disconcerting sway of politics over the bedrock mission of prioritising the well-being of our nation within this critical healthcare deliberation.
“The practical barriers to successfully executing NHI as it is laid out in the Bill are hard to ignore, and yet the numerous concerns and suggestions raised in the consultation process have not been considered or implemented,” says Craig Comrie, chairperson of the National Health Funders Association (HFA).
“The clear shortcomings of the NHI Bill in terms of practical funding mechanisms and lack of collaboration with experienced health funders, among other aspects, have been overlooked for the most part, with only the Western Cape so far rejecting the Bill in its current form.”
The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Committee on Health’s approval of the NHI Bill with insignificant edits does not address the numerous concerns raised in submissions made by the public and informed stakeholders, including the HFA, on behalf of its members.
The HFA is a professional body representing medical schemes and half of South Africa’s medical aid membership.
“There are constructive solutions to address the problems identified in the NHI Bill effectively, and it is not too late to fix the legislation. While the Bill is rushing towards the President’s pen to be enacted, the HFA respectfully appeals to the President to reconsider the wisdom of signing into law a Bill that has no workable funding mechanism while disregarding solutions proposed by private health funders, leading organisations, businesses and other key constituents,” Comrie says.
“We anticipate considerable resistance to the NHI Bill on Constitutional grounds, and as the HFA, we will continue to advocate for a more achievable approach to fulfilling universal health coverage aims.
“The timing of the recent flurry of activity in moving the Bill through the necessary hoops ahead of next year’s election invites the notion of a blunt instrument, an unrealistic election promise rather than a pragmatic solution for the highly complex health challenges South Africa faces,” he says.
Health Funders Association members, including leading lights in the industry such as Bankmed, CAMAF Medical Scheme, Discovery Health Medical Scheme, Fedhealth, Glencore Medical Scheme, Momentum Medical Scheme, Profmed and PPS Healthcare Administrators, to mention but a few, are ready to work with government to develop evidence-based solutions that will help secure access to quality healthcare for all South Africans.
“There is so much opportunity to make the NHI work. Private public partnerships and collaboration have achieved so much good for the benefit of South Africans in other sectors, and there is much our industry can contribute to help make quality healthcare more accessible and sustainable for all,” Comrie concludes.
Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital (NCBMH) has earned a prestigious five-star rating from the City of Cape Town’s Water and Sanitation Directorate, joining the esteemed ranks of organisations dedicated to water sustainability. The accolade underscores NCBMH’s commitment to responsible water management.
The City of Cape Town’s Water Star Rating Certification Awards acknowledged NCBMH’s dedication to best water use, supply, conservation and discharge practices. This recognition aligns with the hospital’s ongoing efforts to champion prudent and sustainable management of natural resources, supporting water-sensitive urban living.
“We are proud to be part of a community leading the charge in climate-smart healthcare transformation and are committed to playing a proactive role in averting a potential water crisis in Cape Town and across South Africa,” said André Nortje, Netcare’s environmental sustainability manager.
Nortje emphasised Netcare’s dedication to minimising environmental impact: “Our commitment extends beyond accolades. Efforts to conserve water, reduce waste and save electricity should be high on every South African’s agenda, and we are committed to doing our part to drive sustainability.”
NCBMH’s water conservation initiatives include a sophisticated greywater harvesting system, as well as a desalination plant capable of providing the entire facility’s water needs. These initiatives, as well as the installation of low-flow showerheads and aerator-equipped taps throughout the hospital, can achieve water savings of approximately 60 000 kilolitres for the facility per annum. The hospital’s desalination plant, installed in 2019, also has the filtration capacity to support all Netcare facilities in the City of Cape Town in a disaster situation.
Netcare achieved a 23% reduction in water consumption at Group level between 2014 and 2020. Nortje outlined the 2030 aim to further reduce the company’s impact on the natural potable water sources by implementing grey- and black-water recycling projects within selected facilities.
The company’s sustainability strategy, initiated in 2013, addresses electricity use, waste reduction, and water management. The Group aims to further reduce its impact on water sources by an additional 20% from the 2020 baseline. The strategy includes efficient equipment deployment, the evaluation of greywater and blackwater treatment for potable water and an operational efficiency drive.
“We believe every business should be a good corporate citizen contributing to our country’s future. At Netcare, we want to show South Africa and the world that sustainability is possible and that YOU can make a difference. The certification allows us to showcase our efforts to inspire businesses around us to join in the fight against wastage,” concluded Nortje.
With frequent and long stints at their computers, the average gamer is a sedentary night owl, often compromising on sleep – especially quality sleep – and being exposed to too much blue light. The topic has been explored in University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD candidate Chadley Kemp’s doctoral thesis, a meaty study of over 70 000 words.
Kemp’s research into habitual gaming activities is supervised by Associate Professor Dale Rae, a sleep researcher and senior lecturer at the Health Through Physical Activity, Lifestyle and Sport Research Centre (HPALS) in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
This work is founded on Kemp’s 2018 research underpinning a master’s in medical science at UCT’s former Department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine in the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. This was upgraded to a PhD in 2020.
His research (he is an esports and video game enthusiast) explores adult esports players’ sleep, health status, light exposure patterns and physical activity.
“We know that sleep affects mental functioning in general, but we weren’t sure about the extent to which this applied to esports players,” said Kemp.
Framework for healthier gameplay
Kemp’s goal is to produce objective data that will guide the development of a framework aimed at promoting healthier gameplay standards and encouraging policy reform within the esports industry.
The tests they used to assess neurocognitive performance were intended to serve as proxies for certain aspects of esports performance because they tested specific mental skills important to gaming, he added.
“We gathered it would be a useful addition to compel gamers to adopt better sleep and lifestyle behaviour changes if it meant … that their health would improve, and they would benefit from better in-game performance – and get an edge over their competitors!”
Kemp’s focus is not on professional gamers, but what he calls “the missing middle” of the esports community: the amateur and semi-competitive gamers.
“This group doesn’t have the same infrastructure and support as their professional counterparts,” he explained. “But what makes them particularly interesting is the fact that they have to balance their gaming commitments with holding down a job, studies, or juggling family or household commitments.”
Esports are burgeoning across the globe – and not only among competitive gamers but audiences too. Writing in the South African Journal of Sports Medicine, Kemp and his co-authors noted that globally competitive gaming attracts 532 million fans alone, according to statistics released in 2022.
However, his study wasn’t motivated by an influx of gamers presenting themselves with sleep difficulties at Associate Professor Rae’s sleep consultancy, Sleep Science. Rather, it stemmed from a broader observation and concern within the local esports community about gamers and poor-quality and short-duration sleep, high levels of sedentarism, and excessive exposure to artificial or electronic night at night.
Based on these conversations and endorsed by anecdotal evidence from within the esports industry, Kemp said he and Rae were able to determine that sleep curtailment had seemingly become a “rite of passage” among gamers. Primarily, most gaming takes place at night because of gamers’ daytime commitments.
As there wasn’t much literature on the topic (much of it is focused on the implications of gaming in children and adolescents) and most studies were survey-based and didn’t target esports players or those regularly engaged with gaming, there was significant knowledge gap that needed filling. As a demographic, Kemp is particularly interested in adult esports players because of the greater health risks posed by age and unhealthy lifestyle factors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Because he needed a tool to measure sleep and physical activity concurrently, he validated the Actiwatch, a special research device, to do this. The device also measures light exposure. For his sample group, Kemp recruited eligible esports players and measured variables of interest. These were clinical measures (anthropometry, blood pressure, blood markers) and self-report data (questionnaires on sleep, chronotype, daytime sleepiness and gaming addiction) and their cognitive performance.
“We also included non-gamers in our study, so we could compare our gamers against people who were not gamers. In total, we had 59 male participants (31 gamers; 28 non-gamers). (The females volunteering to participate did not meet the study’s inclusion criteria.) For a week, these individuals wore the Actiwatch to track their sleep, physical activity, and light exposure.”
The key findings of his research make for interesting reading:
esports players have comparable sleep duration to non-gamers (control group) but tend to sleep later than others. They hit the middle of their sleep cycle around 04:08 compared to 03:01 for the control group.
A much larger percentage of esports players (45.2%) showed night-oriented habits (or evening chronotypes), ie they are more active and alert at night. This is in contrast to only 7.1% of the control group showing similar evening tendencies.
They nap more during the day, but their night sleep duration is similar to that of the control groups.
There was no significant difference in risks related to heart diseases or metabolic diseases between the two groups, which Kemp speculates might be related to their young age. But most of the health markers were tentatively raised, which could point to worse cardiometabolic health in future.
Esports players smoke more.
Esports players performed better in brain-based tasks, showing better attention and accuracy, and making fewer mistakes.
Esports players are less active than the control group. They sit more (11.2 vs 9.1 hours a day) and are less physically active, whether it’s moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity.
Esports players have specific active and inactive hours. They are less active in the early morning and certain evening hours but are more active around midnight.
Esports players are exposed to dimmer light for a more significant part of their day, and their exposure to bright light happens later at night.
This work is important for several reasons, said Kemp. A key takeaway from the research revolves around chronotypes.
“Esports players seem to have sleep patterns that align with being night owls and this may be influenced both by their natural tendencies and their gaming habits. It’s also possible that a genetic disposition and exposure to artificial light from screens collectively contributes to these sleep patterns.
“The combined effect is thought to create a cycle where their preference for evening activities leads to more gaming, which in turn reinforces the night owl tendencies. This impacts on their sleep quality and quantity.”
He added: “Perhaps more obviously, gaming is a massively popular phenomenon that transcends age, sex, and geography. It’s a dominant form of entertainment and its competitive arm, esports, is progressing towards acceptance as a genuine form of sporting competition.”
From the neurocognitive side, it’s clear that gaming can sharpen several cognitive abilities, such as attention and problem-solving.
“However, the catch is, if you’re not getting enough sleep, these enhanced skills could take a hit,” said Kemp. “Gamers might see slower reactions, flawed decision-making, and even a drop in their in-game stamina. So, while gaming certainly has its merits and can even boost certain mental skills, it doesn’t come without health considerations. “
Kemp’s research is aimed at ensuring that anyone engaged with gaming or esports does so in a healthy way.
“The purpose is to create a steppingstone towards health regulation in gaming and esports,” he said. “By creating awareness and providing evidence-based recommendations to prevent chronic health problems caused by unhealthy gaming behaviour, it supports individual decision making, governments, and policy makers. It’s valuable to anyone involved in or impacted by gaming.”
Kemp’s guidelines for gamers:
Get between seven and nine hours’ sleep a night and keep a regular sleep schedule (on weekends too).
Set fixed waking and sleep times to establish a more robust sleep–wake cycle.
For better sleep, ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool (16-18°C is optimal).
Limit the amount of light exposure in the hours before bedtime (including light from phones, laptops, TVs, etc).
Limit caffeine to the morning and afternoon. This means no energy drinks during those night-time gaming sessions).
As various players in South Africa’s health arena give input into the National Health Insurance, and the form it should take, they are agreed on one thing: its goal to achieve quality universal healthcare for all South Africans.
The recent COVID-19 vaccine rollout is a good foretaste of what is possible for South Africa’s healthcare system through the power of cross-sectoral collaboration – and a great case study for health systems strengthening in other countries too.
The rollout saw the public and private sectors, trade unions and community organisations pooling their resources and expertise to get the vaccines to South Africans as fast as possible, and the campaign showed that the country has the resources and expertise to provide a better, more equitable healthcare service.
The question is how we take these lessons and embed them in a healthcare system that serves all of a country’s citizens, and does so in a sustainable way, while adhering to best practice standards.
The clear answer is through the power of partnership – which has been demonstrated to work both here and in the rest of the developing world. Promoting public-private partnerships (PPPs), can accelerate access and distribution of innovative medications. By working together, government, originator companies, and funders can ensure that patients benefit from the latest advancements in healthcare.
Rwanda, for instance, has made significant progress in managing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) through community-based health insurance schemes. Brazil has successfully implemented a comprehensive primary healthcare approach. These countries have prioritised prevention, early detection, and treatment of NCDs, which can be adapted to the South African context.
Locally implemented initiatives under the global Making More Health (MMH) programme include training community health workers to provide primary care services, supporting local entrepreneurs in developing innovative healthcare solutions, and partnering with NGOs to improve access to healthcare in rural areas. These initiatives have helped address complex healthcare issues by empowering local communities and leveraging local resources.
MMH is a social initiative from Boehringer Ingelheim in collaboration with Ashoka, which combines business and social values to unleash innovation and achieve economic and social progress in healthcare. The objective of this long-term initiative is to source social innovation around the world, to explore unconventional partnerships and business models, and to encourage Boehringer Ingelheim employees.
We must also turn our attention to NCDs, which are a major health threat. The WHO estimates that globally, they are responsible for 74% of all deaths. Research into South Africa’s NCD states can play a crucial role in health systems strengthening by identifying the most prevalent diseases, understanding their risk factors, and informing evidence-based policies and interventions. This would help target resources more effectively and improve health outcomes.
This requires robust health data, hosted on a digital infrastructure, which would promote data-sharing among healthcare providers, and encourage the use of standardised data collection methods. This would help create a more accurate picture of the population’s health needs and enable better decision-making across the entire health ecosystem.
We also need to make sure we retain our world-class doctors, and address our critical nursing shortage – it’s estimated we need about 26 000 additional nurses to fill the gap. Without sufficient personnel to deliver healthcare, all the best intentions in the world will not deliver universal health coverage.
We must invest in improving the working conditions and incentives for healthcare professionals in the public sector, strengthen primary healthcare services, and promote collaboration between public and private providers. This would help to ensure that the expertise and experience of these professionals is effectively employed to benefit the broader population.
Moreover, increased collaboration with innovator companies in the private sector, many of whom are already involved in initiatives to strengthen the health system, would ensure patients receive the right treatment while expanding reach across the entire population. This would help tackle inefficiencies, streamline processes, and enable better resource allocation.
The fundamentals of health system strengthening in South Africa include adequate financing, a well-trained and motivated healthcare workforce, efficient supply chain management, and strong governance and leadership. Addressing these gaps – through partnership and collaboration – would help build a more resilient and responsive healthcare system and ensure that South African citizens have access to better healthcare.