Today, more than one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (although fortunately, only about 10% of these will develop an active case of the disease). More than a million people die every year of tuberculosis, with most of these living in developing nations – after HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis is the most deadly infectious disease in the world.
Cause & Symptoms
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the name of the bacterium that causes this illness, and its slow-growing nature means that it may live inside an unsuspecting person’s body for years or decades without causing symptoms. If the disease does become active, though, the first place to be hit is usually the patient’s lungs. Mycobacterium thrives in the human pulmonary system, and an active case of the disease is likely to include harsh and painful coughing, reduced appetite and weight loss, fever, fatigue, and chills. As the disease advances untreated, the classical symptom – coughing up blood – may also appear.
While the lungs are involved in 9 out of 10 cases of tuberculosis, the infection may not be limited to this area of the body. Extrapulmonary tuberculosis is more common in small children and others without healthy immune systems (the elderly, for example, or patients with AIDS or cancer). In these cases, the disease can spread to the bones and joints, the kidneys, the lymphatic system, and even the brain.
Because this disease is spread through the air, the rate of infection can be slowed by good hygiene practices. People without an active case of the disease aren’t contagious, but once symptoms arise, the ill can help to prevent infecting others by covering their mouths when coughing and using good hand-washing technique. Healthy people can help to prevent infection by avoiding sharing enclosed spaces with those who are currently showing symptoms. While none of these are completely foolproof methods, they can help to reduce the rate at which new infections occur.
Especially if caught soon after the infection has activated, tuberculosis can be effectively treated with a combination of several different antibiotic drugs. The special protective layer that covers Mycobacterium makes it difficult to destroy, so patients need a mixture of drugs that work in combination to attack the bacterium.
Patients must be careful to take each of their several doses of drugs a day as prescribed by a doctor until the end of treatment – otherwise, they risk helping the bacteria in their bodies to become drug-resistant. Drug-resistant bacteria are much more difficult to kill, and so with every treatment regimen that fails, the next course of treatment becomes even more difficult.
Because of the rise of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) over the past several years, patients with this specific type of infection have to take doses of at least four different medications multiple times a day for up to two years.
People with inactive infections may also be diagnosed with the disease, if they have a reaction to a tuberculosis skin test. Eradication of the infection in this case is usually shorter and less intense because the bacteria are not already actively growing in the patient’s body when treatment begins.