EL PASO — When El Paso health advocate Eva Moya saw the “shack” a South African photographer created for an AIDS meeting last year in Mexico City, the tiny wheels in her head began whirling.
The photographer, Damien Schumann, had created the makeshift shelter to call attention to the squalid living conditions of some tuberculosis sufferers in South Africa.
Moya had another idea. Why not create a similar structure to raise awareness of the living conditions of people with tuberculosis who live in poverty in colonias?
The result of her inspiration is “Nuestra Casa,” an improvised building on display next to the University of Texas at El Paso’s Undergraduate Learning Center today through October 11. Moya said Schumann visited El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Chihuahua this summer to collect ideas for the project, a 23 by 33-foot house made of plywood panels and a roof made of tires. The structure is meant to capture the sense of isolation and desperation poor people face, especially when they also must contend with being sick from tuberculosis.
Moya, director for the U.S.-Mexico border of a tuberculosis awareness project called “Photovoices,” said one of three people carry a latent form of the virus; a much smaller number develops the disease. She currently works with 30 tuberculosis patients who live in the El Paso-Juarez region. Only someone with an active case of tuberculosis can infect others, usually through the air when they cough, sneeze or spit, according to Moya.
An instructor at UTEP who is also pursuing a PhD in health sciences, Moya said many people hold misconceptions about tuberculosis, for example that the disease is caused by poor hygiene. Instead, the contagious disease is related to poor nutrition, a weakened immune system and cramped living conditions. The risk of spreading the disease to others increases if the infected person shares a small, poorly ventilated space with others, Moya said.
A tuberculosis sufferer who is poor often fails to seek medical help because they lack the financial means to pay for the expensive, lengthy treatments. Of the 30 patients she works with, 28 have developed multi-drug resistance; this means they don’t respond to the typical medical treatment of just a few months because they have self medicated themselves in the past. According to Moya, some have treated themselves with antibiotics thinking they suffered from flu, or tried other medications to alleviate pain. As a result, treatment may take as long as six months, and the patient may develop lung damage.
Upon entering the recreated house, the overall impression is one of poverty, isolation and misery. The abode also contains a hallway names “Corridor of Hope,” where there are pictures, objects and stories of survival from patients. A display in the bedroom tells the story of Isais, a transgender educator and poet who is a tuberculosis survivor.
Visitors to the house will have a chance to speak with some former tuberculosis patients. Through these survivor testimonials, Moya and Schumann hope to convey hope to those who have contracted the disease.
After “Nuestra Casa” leaves El Paso next week, the shelter moves on to places like Oaxaca, Cancún, Michoacán and Tamaulipas, México. Moya said she plans to take the exhibit to other parts of the globe. An inauguration ceremony takes place October 8, at 10:30 a.m., at the Undergraduate Learning Center Plaza.
To find a tuberculosis center near you, please visit the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention‘s website.