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FRONTLINE: TB Silent Killer

Airs Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: 10-year-old Nokubegha, featured in FRONTLINE’s "TB Silent Killer," is battling a multi-drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. In "TB Silent Killer," FRONTLINE presents an unforgettable portrait of lives forever changed by what was once thought to be a disease of the past.

Tuberculosis was once thought to be a disease of the past. But with 8 million new infections every year, virulent new drug-resistant strains emerging faster than ever, and outbreaks occurring across the world (including in Europe and the United States), TB—passed simply by a cough or a sneeze—has become the second leading cause of death from an infectious disease on the planet.

“I travel to these places to observe lives that may seem, at first glance, to be very different from yours and mine — and to bring those lives back to you in a way that starts conversations.” - Jezza Neumann

Courtesy of FRONTLINE

FRONTLINE travels to Swaziland, the country with the world’s highest incidence of TB. With intimacy and emotion, this program delivers an unforgettable portrait of the people living at the pandemic’s epicenter.

In "TB Silent Killer," a special 90-minute FRONTLINE documentary, filmmaker Jezza Neumann travels to Swaziland, the country with the world’s highest incidence of TB. With startling intimacy and emotion, "TB Silent Killer" delivers an unforgettable portrait of the people living at the pandemic’s epicenter.

People like Nokubegha, a 10-year-old girl whose mother was just killed by a multi-drug-resistant strain of the disease, and who is now cared for by her 17-year-old brother. She loves to dance, loves to wear pink, and dreams of one day working with computers at a big company—but then she is diagnosed with TB, and the film follows her through the wrenching months of hospitalization, treatment and uncertainty.

“Multi-drug-resistant TB first emerged years ago when patients with the standard disease didn’t take all of their meds,” Neumann says. “Successful treatment regimens do exist, but they remain old, long and expensive, with serious side effects.”

The film also follows a man named Bheki, a builder who is fanatical about soccer, and recently learned that both he and his sister have the drug-resistant form of TB. “It’s impossible not to be frightened by this,” he tells FRONTLINE. “You never know when it will end for you.”

And as "TB Silent Killer" illustrates, you also never know when it might start. “Anyone can get TB. … You don’t know who’s sick, who is not sick. … [It’s] just in the air, so whether you’re poor or rich, you can’t stop that,” says Gcnenikele, a young woman living in isolation, and on borrowed time, after being diagnosed with extremely drug-resistant TB—an even more deadly strain that has now been reported in 92 countries.

Through the intimate stories of Nokubegha, Bheki and Gcnenikele—and the nurses and doctors who are fighting to save their lives despite the stigma and infection threat they face for doing so—Neumann delivers a haunting, powerful look at this disease’s human toll, and sounds an alarm for us all.

“In Swaziland, a quarter of all adults are HIV-positive, which means their immune systems are compromised and especially susceptible to TB infection,” says Neumann, whose previous FRONTLINE film, "Poor Kids," explored poverty in America through the eyes of children. “But globalization and international travel mean that these infections have the potential to spread all over the world.”

“The fact is, we cannot choose the air we breathe,” a nurse working in Swaziland tells FRONTLINE. “And hence, anyone can get TB.”

Past episodes of FRONTLINE are available for online viewing. FRONTLINE is on Facebook, and follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter.

Video

FRONTLINE: TB Silent Killer Extended Trailer

Above: FRONTLINE tells the heart-wrenching stories behind the spread of a deadly infection threatening people around the world. Despite efforts to eradicate it, tuberculosis remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases, a contagious airborne illness infecting more than eight million people a year. But most alarming to global health officials are spreading strains of TB that are highly resistant to drug treatments. In this intimate film, FRONTLINE travels to the epicenter of the TB crisis — the southern African nation of Swaziland — where families are waging an often hopeless fight for survival.