“Nursing is often looked down upon and people just think you are there to be the maid of the doctor or do the dirty work,” says Chenai Mathabire. “But teachers made me realize that nurses have a big role to play.”
And she did more than just play her role.
The 35-year-old from Zimbabwe won the 2017 International AIDS Society prize for her research in protecting the lives of HIV patients from tuberculosis.
After becoming the first nurse in her family, Mathabire began working for Doctors Without Borders in the care and diagnosis of HIV, tuberculosis (TB), pneumonia, and malaria patients throughout Zimbabwe. She also treated gunshot victims in South Sudan.
But her award-winning research would not begin until 2015 when Doctors Without Borders recruited her for a research assignment regarding rapid TB tests.
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TB is one of the leading causes of death among HIV patients even though tests can detect TB early.
Mathabire and her team conducted research on how easily and efficiently clinics in Malawi and Mozambique could implement rapid TB tests, which were at the time not authorized in the country.
Rapid tests analyze a patient’s urine and provide results within the hour — meaning patients can be diagnosed and begin treatment the same day. This means that low-income people from remote villages are more likely to get treatment because they don’t have to travel back and forth, which is often too expensive.
Mathabire told NPR how one man left the clinic untreated despite his rapid test confirming him for TB, because the detection method was not yet approved by the Ministry of Health, and another type of test showed a negative result.
In 2015, Chenai Mathabire began her first research project at Doctors Without Borders. This work that earned her... https://t.co/rIqpCF2piv— Crawford Library (@CrawfordLibrary) August 14, 2017
But after Doctors Without Borders published the findings of Mathabire and her team, many clinics and health aid organizations have begun using the rapid TB testing in a way that may convince larger health care systems, like Malawi’s Ministry of Health, to do the same.
The standard coughing test commonly used to detect TB can take days or even months to render results, according to Mathabire’s research. Tragically, the man of Mathabire’s story died before he was able to receive treatment due to inaccurate coughing test results.
Mathabire’s team also found that it only took a few hours to train doctors and nurses to administer the test, and patients were ready to try the new method of TB detection after experiencing so much loss due to late detections.
"Everybody basically knew somebody that had died of HIV [and opportunistic infections] in a terrible way," she told NPR.
With a killer like TB threatening HIV positive people, rapid TB tests are necessary, life-saving medical procedures to which everyone should have access.
And everyone should have access to nurses like Mathabire, whose dedication and insight often mean the difference between life and death.