PHOTOS: 'White death' in Argentina: The hunger of poverty feeds tuberculosis

Cristian Molina takes his tuberculosis medication at his house in the shantytown of Luján in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In a poor Buenos Aires suburb, Cristian Molina’s jeans and denim jacket hide his unhealthily slight frame, his legacy from years of a poor diet that left him susceptible to the tuberculosis infection he contracted earlier this year, a disease of poverty that is making a comeback in Argentina.

Molina, 26, lives in the shantytown of Luján near the wealthy capital with his parents, six siblings and four nephews. Doctors think one brother contracted the disease in prison and then spread it around the family when he returned home.

Cases of the “white death” illness, closely linked to malnutrition and poor housing, have been on the rise since the turn of the decade as Latin America’s third-largest economy has been battered by repeat recessions and inflation.

Currently, fast-rising prices and recession are driving more people below the poverty line and stoking homelessness and hunger. The poverty rate stood at above 35 percent in the first half of the year, hurting Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who is expected to lose the general elections on Sunday.

Brigida Simaniz (not pictured) watches over her son Nicolas as he is examined in March by Laura Lagrutta, a pulmonologist specializing in children with tuberculosis, at Dr. Raul Vaccarezza Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

“Tuberculosis is the collateral damage of poverty,” said Laura Lagrutta, an Argentine respiratory specialist focused on treating children with the disease.

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, there were 10,320 reports of new and relapsed TB cases in Argentina last year. The number of cases, which had dropped steadily since the 1980s, started to rise again after 2010.

Tuberculosis kills 5,000 people every day globally and is one of the world’s biggest killers.

Farm-rich Argentina is still better off than some of its South American neighbors, including Brazil and Peru, where incidence of the disease is higher. But the infection rate in Argentina is rising at a worrisome pace.

Marcela Natiello, coordinator of the national TB and leprosy control program, said a declining trend since the 1980s had reversed in 2013, linked to “multiple and complex causes.”

“TB primarily affects the most vulnerable populations with low economic resources, residing in poor, badly ventilated and overcrowded environments,” she said, adding that over half of all cases were in the populous area around Buenos Aires.

Mariela, an infectious disease specialist intern, analyzes an X-ray of 24-year-old patient Jorge, who is currently undergoing treatment for tuberculosis, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

Record numbers

Doctors said the rise in the number of cases was straining some hospital wards where patients with TB are being treated.

Patricia Figueroa, a social worker at the Muniz public hospital, said the facility was struggling with overcrowding as it faced a growing number of TB patients, which she described as “a record in recent history.”

“Due to overcrowding, the hospital is discharging patients with low risk of contagion in order to receive high-risk ones, something very dangerous,” she said, adding that the hospital was looking at how to add more beds to other wards to accept more people.

In slums around the country, Reuters spoke to many people with the disease, who all described living in cramped housing and said they lacked an ample supply of nutritious food.

In Villa 31, a populous shantytown neighborhood in the capital, Luli, 19, has gone through a year of treatment since contracting the disease while she was pregnant. She says her now-months-old baby luckily did not get infected.

Brigida Simaniz checks the homework of her son Nicolas at her apartment in the shantytown of Bajo Flores in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

Luli lives with her son and her partner in a flat with one bedroom, a kitchen and no bathroom. The three sleep in one room. “We are constantly moving from one house to another because of the high price of the rent,” she said.

Daniel, 40, who lives in the same area, is also being treated for HIV, which made him more vulnerable to tuberculosis. He is largely immobilized with an injury to his hip as well as scarring on his lungs.

Brigida Simaniz, who finished her TB treatment in May, lives with her two children in the shantytown of Bajo Flores in Buenos Aires, all three sharing a single bed. She feared passing the infection to her kids.

“I was scared when they told me the diagnosis because I did not know it existed. I always followed the treatment as the doctors said for fear of infecting my children,” said Simaniz, who makes $1.19 an hour working in a textile workshop. “Even though it was cold at night, I opened the windows of the room to circulate the air.” (Reuters)

Photography and reporting by Magali Druscovich/Reuters

Writing by Adam Jourdan Editing by Leslie Adler

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A patient gets some fresh air in the hallway of Koch Pavilion, a hospital unit that is exclusively used by tuberculosis patients at the Muniz public hospital, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Feb. 5, 2019. Patricia Figueroa, a social worker at the Muniz public hospital, said the facility was struggling with overcrowding as it faced a growing number of TB patients, which she described as “a record in recent history.” (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Luli, 19, plays with her son at her home in Villa 31, a populous shantytown neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 29, 2019. Luli has gone through a year of treatment since contracting the disease while she was pregnant. She says her now-months-old baby did not get infected. Luli lives with her son and her partner in a flat with one bedroom, a kitchen and no bathroom. The three sleep in one room. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
A view of Villa 31, a populous and marginalized shantytown neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 5, 2019. Cases of the “white death” illness, closely linked to poverty, malnutrition and poor housing, have been on the rise since the turn of the decade as Latin America’s third-largest economy has grappled with repeat recessions and inflation. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Luis Barraga, 40, who has tuberculosis, waits for lunch in his hospital room at the Muniz public hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 8, 2019. Luis was living on the street when he was admitted. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Lucas, 24, a former tuberculosis patient, talks to a colleague during his lunch break at Masantonio Organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 11, 2019. Lucas works for the Masantonio Organization, where he visits tuberculosis patients who have no family, helping them with their TB treatment and recovery. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Lucas, center, a former tuberculosis patient, visits patients Jorge, left, and Arturo Maldonado, who have both been hospitalized for tuberculosis in Muniz public hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 25, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
A meal of bread and sugar is laid out on the table at Cristian Molina’s family home in the shantytown of Luján in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 17, 2019. Molina, who contracted tuberculosis earlier this year, shares living spaces with his parents, six siblings and four nephews. Doctors think one brother contracted the disease in prison before spreading it around the family when he returned home. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Santiago Jimenez, an infectious disease specialist, checks the lungs of Jorge Borda, who is at the end of his tuberculosis treatment, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Cristian Molina, right, with his siblings Xoana, left, and Manuel in the shantytown of Luján in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 17, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Pulmonologists Laura Lagrutta, right, and Nicolas Castiglioni, who specialize in treating children with tuberculosis, talk inside Lagrutta’s consultation room at Dr. Raul Vaccarezza Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 26, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
A sample that tested positive for tuberculosis is seen from a microscope in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 29, 2019. Cases of the “white death” illness, closely linked to poverty, malnutrition and poor housing, have been on the rise since the turn of the decade as Latin America’s third-largest economy has grappled with repeat recessions and inflation. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Tuberculosis medication belonging to Cristian Molina is laid out in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 26, 2019. Molina is prescribed to take 11 tablets per day, seven in the morning and four in the afternoon, which often give him a stomachache. He contracted tuberculosis earlier this year. Molina lives in the shantytown of Luján and shares living spaces with his parents, six siblings and four nephews. Doctors think one brother contracted the disease in prison before spreading it around the family when he returned home. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Jonathan, 28, a former tuberculosis patient, waits for laboratory results at the Muniz public hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 30, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Arturo Maldonado, 25, who is from Peru, is treated for tuberculosis at the Muniz public hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 11, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Cristian Molina, 26, stands in the grocery store that he and his family own, which is part of the house that they live in, in the shantytown of Luján, in Buenos Aries, Argentina, Sept. 26, 2019. In the last two years, Molina’s family has had to close the shop six times because they haven’t been able to afford to stock the shop. Molina, who contracted tuberculosis earlier this year, shares living spaces with his parents, six siblings and four nephews. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Dr. Decarolis, who specializes in treating patients with HIV and tuberculosis, visits patients who have been hospitalized in isolation for both diseases at the Muniz public hospital, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 29, 2019. (Photo: Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

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