TB or not TB — That is the question

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Mar. 01, 2019

The bad news is that tuberculosis (TB) continues to claim lives as a top 10 cause of death worldwide. The good news is that reported TB cases in the US have dropped 90 percent since 1953.

In Illinois, reported TB cases dropped slightly from 2016 (341 cases) to 2017 (335), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even though reported TB cases have decreased nationwide, the disease can occur anywhere and continues to be reported in all 50 states, the CDC states. In the US specifically, TB remains more common among people who were born in countries with high rates of TB, including Mexico, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam.

What is TB?

TB is an infectious disease that mainly affects the lungs, but can attack any part of the body, such as the kidneys, spine, and brain. The bacteria that causes tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air from coughs and sneezes. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.

Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. People who have a “latent TB infection” have bacteria in their bodies that are not active. They do not have symptoms and are not contagious. However, they may develop “TB disease” in the future and are often prescribed treatment to prevent them from developing TB disease.

People with TB disease have bacteria that are active and can be spread to others. Symptoms include weakness, weight loss, fever, night sweats, coughing, and chest pain.

Who is at risk?

The CDC recommends that people who have an increased risk of tuberculosis be screened for latent TB. This includes people who:

  • Have HIV/AIDS
  • Use IV drugs
  • Are in contact with infected individuals
  • Are from a country where TB is common, such as countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia
  • Live or work in areas where TB is common, such as prisons or nursing homes
  • Work in healthcare and treat people with a high risk of TB
  • Are children and are exposed to adults at risk of TB

Can TB be treated?

It takes much longer to treat TB than other types of bacterial infections. However, the vast majority of TB cases can be cured when medicines are available and taken properly, according to the World Health Organization. Between 2000 and 2017, an estimated 54 million lives were saved through TB diagnosis and treatment.

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