What is tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). The bacteria most commonly affects the lungs, leading to pulmonary TB. But it can spread to other parts of the body including the brain, spine and other major organs. This is called non-pulmonary TB. TB has had a number of different names over the course of history, including ‘consumption’, ‘the white plague’, ‘Phthisis’ and ‘The Captain of all these Men of Death’.

TB is the world’s deadliest infectious disease with approximately 10 million new cases each year and 1.5 million deaths, including 350,000 children.

How does TB spread?
TB is spread through the air from one person to another. The TB spreads when a person with infectious TB  coughs, speaks, or sings. People nearby may breathe in these TB germs and become infected. TB is much less infectious than Covid-19 and spreads more quickly in areas with poor sanitation, poor ventilation, high levels of poverty and areas with a lack of access to medicial facilities, medicines and vaccines.
What are the symptoms of TB?
TB causes a range of symptoms which vary between individuals. The most common symptoms of TB include: a persistent cough lasting a number of weeks, chest pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, fever, coughing blood, rapid weight loss, shortness of breath and night sweats. These symptoms are shared with a number of other respiratory diseases, which often means people with TB are misdiagnosed.
How is TB diagnosed?

There are a number of medical tests which can be used to detect TB. In the first instance, patients receive a physical exam from a medical professional who also reviews their medical history. A skin test or blood test can be used to check for a latent or active TB infection (see below definition for latent TB). Patients also receive a chest x-ray to spot signs of the TB bacterium in their lungs. Finally, a patient can be diagnosed via a spetum test, where the TB bacteria is coughed up by the patient. For more complex forms of TB, additional tests may be needed to accurately confirm the diagnosis.

How is TB treated?
TB is entirely treatable and curable. Patients are prescribed a number of medications to combat the complex and evasive TB bacterium. This also helps to prevent strains of TB bacteria becoming resistant to the key medicines that are used to eliminate TB infections.
Who is at risk of developing TB?
Everyone is at risk of developing a TB infection. However, there are some health and socio-economic factors which mean that certain groups of people are more at risk of contracting TB than others. These include:

– People who are immunocompromised

– People with a substance-abuse issue

– People who have lived in, or recently returned from, a geogaphy with a high TB burden

– Homeless people and those living in poverty

– People in prison

What is latent TB?

20% of the world’s population has latent, or inactive, TB. People with latent TB have the TB bacterium in their bodies, but show no symptoms, do not feel sick and do not have the ability to pass on TB to other people. Latent TB becomes active when the body’s immune system becomes compromised. This can happen for a number of reasons, including prexisting medical conditions, certain medicine regimens, age, poor nutrition andliving in crowded or poorly ventilated conditions. 

If the latent TB turns active, then the individual will develop an active TB infection. To prevent the spread of TB, many people with latent TB are screened and monitored to prevent wider populations from contracting an active TB bacterium.

Do we have a TB vaccine?
There is one available TB vaccine. The Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine was developed over 100 years ago and is still the most widely used TB vaccine in the world. Whilst the BCG has been shown to be moderately effective at preventing TB infections in children, the vaccine provides little to no protection for adults. To effectively eliminate TB globally, we really need a new TB vaccine which provides excellent protection against TB for both adults and children.
What is multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB)?
TB strains are becoming increasingly resistant to the medicines used to treat a TB infection. This means that medicines are becoming less effective at killing the TB bacterium. This is leading to increased levels of multidrug-resistant strains of TB which are more complex and difficult to eliminate with modern medicines. MDR-TB is on the rise due to an increase in the number of people not completing treatment for ‘regular’ TB infections, misdiagnosis, a lack of education and a lack of access to quality TB care and services in the areas in which they are needed.

People with MDR-TB must be treated with complex and specalist drug regimens. This treatment takes much longer than a ‘regular’ TB infection and the side effects are much more severe.

Drug and antimicrobial resistance are an increasingly important issue within the global health sector. Drug resistant strains of TB kill more people each year than any other disease.

Please note that this is not an official website of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. APPGs are informal groups of Members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues. Any views expressed across this website are those of the APPG on Tuberculosis.

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