South Africa on Friday launched a four million dollar programme to track down tuberculosis patients who have defaulted treatment, leading to resistant strains of the illness.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, speaking in the Northern Cape on TB Day, said all nine provinces had established TB tracer teams of nurses and community health workers to follow up on patients who had defaulted treatment.
"These teams visit homes to find patients so that they can put them back on treatment. To further strengthen this programme, the national department has deployed an additional 72 teams in sub-districts which have poor TB outcomes," she said.
Tshabalala-Msimang said the 33 million rand (four million dollars / 2.5 million euros) programme hoped to improve treatment outcomes and prevent the development of drug resistant TB.
South Africa is desperately trying to curb its heavy caseload of TB. With more than 340,000 South Africans infected, patients defaulting from treatment have developed multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extreme drug resistant (XDR) TB.
Resistance to TB drugs can develop when patients fail to take their medication as prescribed, and in a minority of cases through direct transmission from person to person.
MDR-TB fails to react to the two most powerful anti-TB drugs, while XDR-TB is resistant to these and at least two others.
Nearly 400 cases of XDR-TB were diagnosed in 2007.
Tshabalala-Msimang said 400 million rand devoted by government to fighting TB was being used to improve the conditions of hospital isolation of patients.
The government decided to isolate people who have a history of defaulting treatment. Patients have broken out of hospital in frustration at the lengthy time medical care takes.
"It is in the interest of the public as well as these patients that XDR and MDR patients remain in hospital until they are discharged," the minister said.
She said TB plans had already brought defaulter rates to 8.8 percent in the first half of 2006 down from 9.7 percent in 2005, while the national cure rate went from 68.3 percent to 73.6 percent in the same period.