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Tuberculosis is back                         

                                        January 2009




TuberculosisIf, like me, you are of a certain age you probably queued up in school in your early teens for the dreaded BCG vaccination.

At the time I hadn’t really any idea what it was all about, I was far more interested in a picture my friend had brought in of her good looking older brother!

That BCG injection most of us were given contained live but weakened tubercle bacteria to stop us getting tuberculosis, a disease that used to be so prevalent that in the 19th century that it was responsible for the deaths of around a quarter of the entire population in Europe. All three of the Bronte sisters died young from the illness.

Thanks to steady developments in medicine plus far better living conditions, the rates of tuberculosis reduced dramatically and in recent years few of us have given it any thought.

Now the pendulum has swung again and a significant rise in tuberculosis is causing concern. TB is still flourishing in various parts of the world, especially where there is overcrowding. Surprisingly it actually outnumbers AIDS as a killer of people of all ages, mainly because the poorer countries can’t afford the new combination drugs required to kill the disease. With such easy travel now around the globe, it is now much more common for people with TB to come to or travel through the UK and spread the disease here.

Last year (2008) there were 2,938 new cases of TB in London alone and general figures show there was an increase of 18% across the country.


A leading lung specialist from the British Thoracic Society, Dr John Moore-Gillon, says there is a shortage of TB nurses and additional consultant lung specialists which are essential to turn the tide against the disease. It is estimated that the number of TB cases in London alone will double during the next three or four years together with significant increases across the rest of the country.

So what is this disease that was the scourge of the 19th century and is now returning.

Basically it is a disease of the lungs. This disease is caused by tuberculosis bacteria which spread through microscopic droplets sent out from infected people when they cough, sneeze or even just speak.

If you have been infected, it can take a month or six weeks for the infection to give any symptoms. These can include a persistent cough, tiredness, lack of appetite, fever and night sweats.

Once you have been infected, the bacteria can spread through the blood and can affect other organs if your immune system is weakened. However, TB of the lungs is by far the most common problem.

Today there are very effective drugs to treat tuberculosis, but the disease can still kill if not treated properly.

tuberculosisIf you have had a continuous cough, and your doctor feels there could be a risk of tuberculosis, he will refer you to your local hospital for an x-ray examination. A sample of sputum may also be analysed.


To treat the disease, there are different kinds of antibiotics and multiple medicines are usually necessary for six to nine months to treat the disease properly.

But the rise in the disease definitely brings home to us that basic courtesy we were taught as children – when you sneeze, turn away and cover your face with a hanky or your hand. This doesn’t just stop the spread of colds, it can also help to stop the spread of tuberculosis.


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