What is Tuberculosis and what does it do?

Although 95% of cases occur outside high-income countries, around 7,000 cases a year are reported annually in the UK, causing 500 deaths. TB used to be the biggest killer in the UK, with over 100,000 cases reported annually on the outbreak of World War 1, a number declining to around 50,000 in the 1950s. Novelist George Orwell and poet John Keats both died from the disease.

Recently there have been fears that TB is making a comeback. The lowest number of observed cases in the UK was in 1987, but since then the number of people infected has been slowly but steadily increasing, with 5,608 cases in 1995 and 7,627 in 2005. The increase is commonly accredited to the raised prevalence of the disease worldwide; many people are infected through travel to countries where the disease is endemic, such as India.

TB is potentially deadly, but is most often fatal in patients with poor general health, due to living conditions or the presence of other diseases. Many people infected with TB will fight off the infection without medical treatment, and there may not be any symptoms observed at all. In cases where the body has fought off the infection, the bacteria responsible are retained in the body in tubercles, which is called latent or primary TB. The bacteria are inactive, and the patient will suffer no symptoms nor will transmit the infection. Fighting off TB affords immunity to the disease, but it can return at a later date, especially if the personÂ’s general health declines. TB is not infectious in three quarter of TB infections as a whole and half of pulmonary infections (TB infection of the lungs).

If you were to suffer an active TB infection youÂ’d be at risk of infecting others through the exhalation of TB bacteria in droplets from sneezing or coughing, and might exhibit any of the following symptoms: a persistent, possibly bloody cough, tiredness and night sweats, pain on inhalation, swollen glands, reduced appetite and weight loss.

Pulmonary TB is potentially very infectious, but two weeks of treatment will stop the disease being passed on by a patient. It can be cured quickly and completely: in most cases the patient will be fully recovered in a few weeks and will suffer no long term symptoms.

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