Tuberculosis: A 6000-Year-Old Disease

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis and is characterised by the growth of nodules or a warty outgrowth called tubercles. These tubercles mostly occur in the lungs. However, TB bacteria can still attack other parts of the body such as the kidney, spine and brain.

It’s All About Getting Airborne

TB is spread from one person to another through the air when a person with TB in his or her lungs coughs or sneezes. TB does not spread by shaking someone’s hand, sharing food or drink, touching bed linens or toilet sheets or sharing toothbrushes. The TB bacteria in the cough and sneeze droplets usually die once the droplets dry out.

TB vs The Immune System

When a person gets infected with the TB bacteria, their body is most likely able to contain the infection and keep the bacteria from growing. In these cases, no symptoms are observed and they carry on living their lives unchanged. Because there are no symptoms such as the coughing and sneezing, the TB bacteria does not get airborne and spread. It is possible that some will even live their whole lives without every falling sick. with TB.

However, when the bacteria becomes active in the body and multiplies, the person will start showing symptoms and fall sick. This can happen within weeks of infection or even years later when the immune system is weakened for another reason.

What Does TB Look Like?

Those who have the TB bacteria growing in their lungs will have a bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer. They will also experience pain in their chest and cough up blood or sputum (phlegm from inside the lungs). Other reported symptoms include weakness or fatigue, weight loss due to lack of appetite, chills, fever and sweating at night.

Getting Harder to Treat

In most cases, a TB infection is treatable and curable with antituberculosis antibiotics. Without proper treatment however, a person may die. On the other hand, when TB treatment drugs are misused or mismanaged, multiple drug-resistant TB bacteria can develop. Examples of such situations include when people do not complete the full course of the treatments, or when healthcare providers prescribe the wrong treatment (wrong dose or wrong length of time for taking drugs).

Multiple-resistant TB is TB that no longer responds to the two most powerful drugs, isoniazid and rifampicin. These TB resistant strains are a really big problem now. Doctors are forced to use a combination of alternative drugs and chemotherapy that can take up to 2 years to work to try and subdue a resistant TB infection.

Prevent TB With the Vaccine

Malaysian infants are given the BCG vaccine at birth to prevent TB. This is because TB is common in countries such as ours. With treatment getting less and less effective, prevention is the better way to go.

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