December 17, 2013

The human face of global health R&D: Natalie Nelson and USAID

Communications Officer

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the nation’s lead foreign assistance agency. Throughout its 50-year history, USAID has worked with other government agencies, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to support the development and introduction of affordable health products appropriate for addressing the diseases and health issues in developing countries.

The GHTC has launched a new blog series to highlight the impact of USAID’s commitment to global health research and development (R&D). The series will showcase stories from individuals who have benefited from the agency’s support and investment in R&D—as well as people whose lives would vastly improve if USAID were to expand its support for health R&D into new areas.

Our second post is by Natalie Nelson, a tuberculosis (TB) survivor from Tennessee who believes that if USAID expanded its support for health R&D to include TB vaccine research, the agency could help change the lives of TB patients like her worldwide.

Q: Many people think of TB as a disease of the past—or a disease that only impacts people in developing countries. But your experience with TB demonstrates that the disease impacts Americans, too. How did you contract TB, and how has the disease impacted your life in the US?

A: I was working as a volunteer physical therapist in a small healthcare facility in South Africa when I contracted TB. I assisted patients infected with TB and HIV. After I came home to the US, I started getting sick. It took an entire year to be correctly diagnosed—and after finding out I had multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB), my life drastically changed.

TB forced me to quit my job as a physical therapist. I received a 2-year treatment program, a mask, an isolation sentence, and with that, a new stigma. My life and my desire to return to South Africa were both placed on hold as I accepted a new lifestyle: swallowing drugs as I was directly observed by a health care provider each morning and afternoon and a drug infusion for 2 hours, 5 days a week for the first 6 months, then 3 days a week for the next year and a half.

Natalie Nelson is a TB survivor from Tennessee who believes that if USAID expanded its support for health R&D to include TB vaccine research, the agency could help change the lives of TB patients like her worldwide. Credit: Aeras.
Natalie Nelson is a TB survivor from Tennessee who believes that if USAID expanded its support for health R&D to include TB vaccine research, the agency could help change the lives of TB patients like her worldwide. Credit: Aeras.

Although the treatment was completely exhausting both physically and mentally, having TB brought an awareness that I never would have experienced otherwise. I feel blessed to have the care that I received, and now I can fight for and speak up for those who do not have the same options.

Q: Your story also demonstrates the growing issue of resistance to currently available TB treatment options, which makes the disease much more difficult and expensive to treat. What was that experience like for you, in terms of undergoing TB treatment, its side effects, and its costs?

A: Having TB was extremely scary. So many things were uncertain, and the questions were endless. Was the medicine working? Would I eventually need surgery? Would I even survive? No one could tell me definite answers. I just had to keep pressing forward and swallowing the pills, as there was no alternative.

There were numerous side effects from the medication—it seemed like a new one would surface each week. First, I was terribly weak and frail. I lost over 20 pounds and my iron levels bottomed out, so I was tired all the time. Then, I developed excruciating kidney stones in both kidneys. Every afternoon around 3:00 my face would flush, my temperature spiked, and I had to lie down. At times, my fingers went numb, and I dropped things constantly. Though all of this was terrible, the worst side effect was short term memory loss from Cycloserine—the drug I was taking to treat my TB. I forgot what I was saying mid-sentence, and constantly repeated myself. I got lost driving and forgot to show up to appointments. I became socially awkward and utterly undependable during this time. This was really difficult and embarrassing.

The costs were astronomical. TB cost me my job, my energy, years of my life, special moments with friends and family, my health—and at times—my sanity. I am unsure of the exact dollar amount because there are some losses that can't be calculated, but the cost was easily over half a million dollars.

Q: Currently, there is only one vaccine to prevent TB—the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. While BCG is the most widely used vaccine in the world, it has not successfully eliminated the disease due to its limited efficacy. Based on your personal experience with TB, how would new and improved vaccines—as well as treatment options—help in the fight against TB worldwide?

A: We can never truly eradicate TB without a vaccine, better diagnostics, and treatment options. I passionately believe that prevention is key and that new vaccines and treatments could mean billions of dollars saved every year. It would mean that TB would not be a plane ride away. It would mean the college student on spring break traveling to Africa for mission work wouldn't have to worry about his safety. Currently, it would mean that the person who dies every 30 seconds of every day of TB would not.

Q: As you know, USAID currently does not support research to develop new TB vaccines. How would support from USAID for TB vaccine research help patients like you in the US and around the world?

A: Support from USAID to develop new vaccines will mean moments and years and lives saved around the world.

A vaccination before my trip to South Africa might have changed everything. The truth is I will never know what could have been. But what IF I had received an improved TB vaccine before traveling? Maybe I would have returned home and never lost my job as a physical therapist. Maybe I would have stood next to my friend Laural as she said her vows, rather than lying in bed on isolation. Maybe I would have been more present in my friends’ and family's lives during those three years. Maybe I would have gone back to South Africa.

For countless others around the world, a better TB vaccine would be life-changing. Maybe a mother will not worry about passing the disease to her children. Maybe a doctor will save millions of lives.

TB does not discriminate. It does not matter who you are—if you breathe, you are at risk. This is why support for research of new vaccines is absolutely imperative. USAID should absolutely choose to be a part of this global fight. After all, who would willingly choose to NOT be a part of claiming lives were SAVED, lives were LIVED, and dreams were PURSUED? I hope we can all confidently say we were a part of this solution.

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