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Still a risk from TB                                                   June 2010  

Still a risk from TB

TBAround 150 years ago, tuberculosis (TB) used to cause about one in eight of all deaths in the UK. Then, in 1882 a biomedic Robert Koch announced the discovery of the bacillus that causes the disease and this eventually led to medication that brought dramatic results.

When most of us were young, injections such as the school BCG programme (introduced in 1953) made the disease very low risk and because of this many current doctors were trained during a time when TB wasn’t of major concern.

However, tuberculosis has not been totally wiped out and today the numbers of people in this country infected by TB has begun to rise; around 7000 people now get the disease each year. A Spanish study shows that one of the highest death rates from the disease are among those aged over 50, so it is not a disease we should ignore.

There is also another factor. TB in older people does not always follow the predictable course, and this can mean doctors overlook it and the problem is not diagnosed quickly. Early treatment is really important to contain this disease.

TB is caused when bacteria take a hold and then multiply inside the body. TB is thought of as a lung disease, and indeed this is a common site, but TB bacteria can also attack other parts of the body.

The good news is that while TB is indeed highly infectious, and can be spread through the air when someone with the disease coughs or sneezes, it is not easily caught. Usually you need to be in close or lengthy contact with someone else with TB before you succumb yourself.

The most common symptom is a chronic cough that may have started with what was thought to be an ordinary cold or flu. This can then progress to appetite or weight loss – and in older people this can sometimes be erroneously attributed to poor diet or sometimes even to gum disease or ill-fitting dentures. There may be a general feeling of being unwell and another indication is spitting or coughing up blood.

There are other symptoms of TB, night sweats, kidney malfunctioning and bowel irregularities could all be indications of this disease.

There is an easy and reliable test to see if you are infected with tuberculosis microbes; and if you feel there is any likelihood you may have caught this disease, then you should suggest having a test to your doctor. The test is a simple one to check intra-dermal reaction, in other words a skin test. If this is positive, then the doctor will try and isolate the germs by culture in a laboratory to confirm the disease. There is another reliable test called thoracic Rx, which can show exactly if TB is present and where in the lungs it is localized.

TB is treated with special antibiotics but it is a long treatment that will last at least six months. It is important that the TB is eradicated as otherwise it can return in a more resistant form.


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