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5 Little known facts about TB

By Faeza
23 March 2016

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The facts about TB

Did you know that tuberculosis (TB) may be present in your body without you necessarily falling ill and can manifest in different ways, affecting various parts of the body?

Dr Caroline Maslo, medical advisor at Prime Cure, which is part of Netcare’s Primary Division, says TB can affect anyone, irrespective of age, socio-economic class, race or gender. “What we need to appreciate is that because of its infectious nature, TB not only affects individuals, it places the whole community at potential risk.”

“Equally, it takes the awareness, compassion and united efforts of the entire community to ensure that people who have TB get the treatment they need, adhere to their treatment plan and prevent the spread of the disease. There can be no clearer expression of Ubuntu and community-mindedness than working together to stop TB from claiming more lives and causing more suffering.”

How TB spreads

TB is an airborne bacterial disease that is spread when a person who is infected with active pulmonary (lung) TB, coughs, laughs, speaks, sneezes, sings or spits, causing invisible droplets of sputum to spray into the air. Other people then breathe in the TB bacteria and may in turn be infected with the disease, particularly in confined spaces without sufficient flow of fresh air, such as crowded rooms without open windows or on public transportation such as = buses, trains or taxis.

5 Little known TB facts

1. It's possible to have latent TB

It is a little known fact that many people live with latent TB, meaning that they do not get ill from it unless their immune system is weakened through another disease, such as HIV/Aids or cancer. Latent forms of TB are not infectious.

2. TB not only infects the lungs

“Many people mistakenly believe that TB only attacks the lungs. While this is one of the most recognisable forms of TB, it can also lodge in other parts of the body including bone, cartilage, lymph nodes, other internal organs and even the skin. If it is not diagnosed and treated in time, all forms of TB can have severe consequences. The good news is that most TB infections can be cured without lasting effects, provided it is detected and treated early. On the other hand, without timeous treatment the disease can be fatal,” Dr Maslo notes.

3. Feeling better doesn’t mean TB cured

Most TB infections in South Africa fall into the category of “drug-sensitive” TB strains, which means the disease can be treated with antibiotics. Usually it takes a number of months for the antibiotic treatment to effectively cure the disease, and it vitally important to adhere strictly to the terms of the prescription.

“Many people report that they feel completely better after several weeks of treatment, but in reality the infection is still present in the body. If treatment is disrupted and not completed, or not followed to the letter, there is a real threat that the person could develop drug-resistant TB. People who are subsequently infected will therefore contract a strain that is much more difficult to treat than conventional TB strains,” Dr Maslo cautions.

4. The disease is getting harder to treat

Multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) describes strains of TB that have developed resistance to two or more of the medicines that are usually prescribed for the treatment of TB, meaning that the disease is more difficult to treat.

Extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) strains are, fortunately, not as prevalent as MDR-TB but these strains are extremely difficult to treat and require hospitalisation.

“It is feared that there are a significant number of people living with XDR-TB who have not yet been diagnosed and are unaware of the severity of their condition. It is of great concern that these XDR-TB strains could be spread to more people in the community and become widespread,” Dr Maslo warns.

5. TB can infect anyone

“Above all, it is vital that the public understand that anyone can be infected with TB and there is certainly no shame in being diagnosed with this condition,” says Dr Maslo, “Some very prominent individuals have been brave enough to take a stand against the stigma of TB by publicly stating that they have been affected by the disease, including former president Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Welsh musician Tom Jones and former Beatle Ringo Starr. Do not shun people who have TB, as you too may have latent TB without realising it or may yourself contract it.”

The pulmonary TB symptoms:

  • A cough that persists for more than two weeks
  • Flecks of blood in the sputum in more advanced stages
  • Fever
  • Sweating at night
  • Pain when breathing or coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms are those specifically associated with pulmonary TB, but not all of these symptoms will necessarily be present in a person infected with TB of the lungs. Non-pulmonary TB, i.e. TB infection of parts of the body other than the lungs, can affect the body in many diverse ways other than these symptoms.

How to prevent the spread of TB

  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Open windows wide to allow fresh air to circulate
  • Quit smoking and limit your intake of alcohol, as these make you more susceptible to TB
  • Follow a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables
  • Wash your hands regularly, preferably with antibacterial soap
  • Get tested for TB, and adhere to the prescription for the full course of medication
  • Learn about TB and ensure your friends and family are informed about the disease

“It is in all our best interest to confront TB through awareness and solidarity. If you recognise symptoms of TB in a friend or family member, offer them support and advise them to visit a doctor or clinic so that they can be tested and treated for TB,” concludes  Dr Maslo.