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tuberculosis

Alternative names: consumption, TB

Type of infection: bacterial

Incubation period: 2 to 12 weeks

Mortality rate: up to 60% if not treated

Vector: bodily fluid contact

History

Ancient Egyptians suffered from tuberculosis, judging by signs of the disease found in mummies from 3,000 BC. Nefertiti most likely died from it. Greeks also knew about tuberculosis, though they called it phthisis.

During the Middle Ages, it swept across Europe and was known as the White Plague. By the 19th century, TB was one of the major causes of death in children under 4. Once the idea took hold that it was an infectious disease that spread between people, the practice of isolating TB patients in sanatoriums became the common approach. Vaccines were created in 1920, and then in 1944, antibiotics were discovered and there was finally a decent treatment for TB.

No longer common in America, tuberculosis is still a threat in many parts of the world.

Catching Tuberculosis

TB is spread from one infected person to another through the usual water droplets that fly about during sneezing or coughing. Since one of the main symptoms is persistent deep coughing, this means is spreads quite quickly and easily.

People who already have a compromised immune system are particularly at risk for getting TB, such as those with HIV. Lungs already damaged by regular smoking are also more susceptible to catching tuberculosis.

Signs and Symptoms

TB can be tricky because you can have a latent case of it that shows no symptoms, and that can remain in your body for years before flaring up.

But once the disease is active, there will be a persistent cough with bloody sputum, fever and weight loss. It's the weight loss that led to the original name for the disease, as it "consumed" your body.

Treatment

Tuberculosis is treated with antibiotics with pretty good success though it can take a long period of treatment to kill all of the bacteria (several months of regular doses). Isoniazid and rifampicin are the usual drugs used for TB, though there are more and more reports of resistance in areas where these antibiotics are frequently used.

If you feel that you've been infected by tuberculosis, possibly during some kind of outbreak, but are showing no symptoms, you can still be tested for the disease with a skin tuberculin test. If it's positive, you can be treated just as if you had symptoms to prevent it becoming active later.

Prevention

There is a good vaccine for tuberculosis, known as BCG, but as the disease is now quite uncommon in Canada and America, it is not part of the regular childhood roster of vaccinations. But since the disease is still currently a problem in many parts of the world, there is plenty of vaccine out there if you wanted to find an independent source for it.

To prevent TB without the vaccine, you need to stay out of contact with an infected person. Gloves and masks are very helpful to block contact with fluids (particularly all the droplets spread by coughing).

Risk Assessment

Though in many cases, the increased number of people who refuse vaccinations can become a threat, this is not the situation with TB since it is not a regularly administered vaccine to begin with. But with estimates that about 1/3 of the world's population is infected with TB, there is always the risk of it migrating around the world through travel contacts. If that "1/3" figure seems oddly high, remember that many cases are latent and have no symptoms

Another aspect of TB spread to consider is that people with HIV are far more likely than average to contract the disease. So as HIV spreads, so do cases of TB. Add in that there are growing bacterial populations that are drug-resistant. Overall, it may seem like a "long gone" threat, but it's one that could come raging back.




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