Tuberculosis is not a disease of the past - at least not yet

Armen Hareyan's picture

Tuberculosis, or TB, is still one of the world's leading causes of death from infectious disease, even though it is readily treatable and preventable.

Last year, 370 cases of tuberculosis were reported in North Carolina, up slightly from 329 cases in the previous year. Despite steady improvements in TB control, North Carolina continues to be ranked in the upper half of states in terms of TB case rates, and ranked 25th in overall U.S. case rates in 2005, the latest year for which national data are available.

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March 24 is World TB Day, commemorating the 1882 announcement of Dr. Robert Koch's discovery of the TB bacillus, the germ that causes tuberculosis. While many people think tuberculosis is a disease of the past and no longer a threat, that is not the case. In fact, 125 years after Koch's discovery of the cause of TB and more than 50 years after the discovery of effective medication to treat TB, extensively drug-resistant cases of TB are increasing in many parts of the world, including the United States. TB is also the leading cause of death among people infected with HIV.

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The germ primarily affects the lungs, but can also affect other organs. Once the TB germ is inside a person's body, the body's immune system can suppress its growth, resulting in inactive or latent TB infection, which does not make the person feel sick and cannot be spread to others. However, if not properly treated with a course of preventive antibiotics, TB infection can develop into active TB disease.

When a person with active TB disease sneezes or coughs, TB bacteria are released into the air. Another person inhaling the bacteria may then develop TB infection. A simple tuberculin skin test (sometimes called a PPD test) can help diagnose TB infection or disease. Tuberculosis can be cured with appropriate treatment and medication, which is managed through local health departments in North Carolina.

TB cases have declined steadily in the U.S. over the last 13 years. In 2005, an all-time low of 14,097 cases of TB disease were reported in the United States. However, the drop in the number of cases from 2004 to 2005 was just 2.9 percent