Tuberculosis was once thought to be a disease of the past.
But with more than 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.
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 12-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.”
TB Silent Killer aired Tuesday, March 25, at 10 p.m. on PBS. You can watch it online at pbs.org/frontline.
TB Silent Killer is a True Vision production for WGBH/FRONTLINE and the BBC. The producer, writer and director is Jezza Neumann. Rebecca Stewart is the co-producer. Clare Paterson is the executive producer for the BBC. The executive producer for True Vision is Brian Woods. The deputy executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning. This blog is a repost of the press release.