World Tuberculosis Day on March 24 is a day set aside to raise awareness about the continuing problem of tuberculosis (TB) world wide, especially in developing countries.
TB is the second leading cause of infectious disease deaths in adults with over two million people dying each year from TB. In the late 1900s, TB was the leading cause of death in the United States and the cause of one in seven deaths in both the United States and Europe.
TB is a bacterial disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a bacterium that was isolated by Dr. Robert Koch on March 24, 1882. The isolation of the bacteria led to the discovery in the 1940s of medicines that can treat TB. These medications along with, vigilant public health practices led to the decline in the number of TB cases in the United States.
During the 1970s and into the 198s, TB control efforts were relaxed and the number of cases once again began to increase. Because of increased public health attention TB is again on the decline. However, more than 14,000 cases were reported in the United States in 2003.
TB is an airborne disease that can be spread when a person with active TB disease in the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes. Anyone who is close by and breathes in the bacteria can become infected with TB. Not everyone infected with the TB bacteria develops an active case since some people may develop latent TB. These people are not sick nor can they spread the disease, but latent TB can develop into an active case.
Normally TB attacks the lungs, however it can spread and grow in other parts of the body such as the kidneys, spine and the brain. The symptoms of TB vary depending on where the bacteria are actually growing. Symptoms of active TB in the lungs include a bad cough, which lasts for three or more weeks, a cough which produces blood or sputum and pain in the chest. Fatigue, weight loss, fever, chills and night sweats may also be symptoms of TB.
In general, people with healthy immune systems who are exposed to TB can fight off the disease successfully. However babies, young children and people with HIV have weakened immune systems. Other medical conditions can also result in weakened immune systems. Some of these conditions are substance abuse, severe kidney disease and diabetes mellitus. Since TB can now be controlled and cured, and in the future eliminated with proper health care measures, public health has a vital role to play in achieving these goals.
A simple skin test performed by your health care provider is an important tool in the fight to eliminate the spread of TB. A positive test may occur in people with latent TB so a follow up chest X-ray is often ordered to rule out that possibility. With proper medical treatment people with latent or active TB can be cured.
For more information about the detection and prevention of infectious disease contact the Franklin County Health Departments TB program coordinator at 564-7647.
Debbie Howes Fleming is the health education director with the Franklin County Health Department. For more information about column topics or to contact her or the FCHD Community Health Education team, call 564-5559.