TB Frequently Asked Questions

World TB Day is commemorated on 24 March every year with the purpose of raising public awareness of tuberculosis (TB), a disease that claims millions of lives on a global scale every year.

But why 24 March? On this day, back in 1882, Dr Robert Koch announced the discovery of the bacterium that causes TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Considered a feat for medical science, his discovery paved the way in effectively diagnosing and treating a disease that had plagued civilizations for centuries.

To find out more about TB, the symptoms, how its spreads and what treatment options are available, read the following frequently asked questions: 

Tuberculosis or TB, as it’s commonly called, is an infectious, airborne disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium. Although it mainly affects the lungs (pulmonary TB), the disease can also affect other areas of the body, including the heart, bones, skin and brain.

In 2019, 10 million people fell ill with TB worldwide, of which 1.2 million were children. In South Africa, 360 000 people fell ill with TB that same year, with males dominating infections by 53% in comparison to females accounting for 36% of the infections.

The bacteria that causes TB is spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air when an infected person coughs, sings, talks or sneezes.

The symptoms of pulmonary TB generally include persistent coughing, fatigue, fever, night sweats, chills, weight loss, and chest pain, to name a few. Symptoms may vary depending on where the infection is present in the body.

A doctor should be consulted if you have a fever, unexplained (and unwanted) weight loss, a persistent cough and night sweats. Although these are common TB symptoms, they can also be caused by other medical conditions. Therefore, it is recommended to consult a doctor who can do testing to help determine the cause.

High risk individuals who should present themselves for TB screening and testing if any symptoms present, include those with who have conditions that compromise the immune system (e.g. HIV/AIDS, cancer patients, patients on immune suppressive therapies), and healthcare workers.

In South Africa, TB is primarily diagnosed through PCR testing (the detection of the genetic material of the bacteria), similar to the testing used for #COVID19.  Once a positive diagnosis has been made, a patient can be started on treatment. The duration of treatment is 6 months (drug sensitive TB) and 9 months or longer for drug resistant TB.

TB testing is free at all public health facilities in South Africa. Private laboratory groups are also able to test for TB.

TB is treated with a combination of drugs (all oral), for a period of six months for drug susceptible TB or longer for drug resistant TB.

Exercising cough etiquette when coughing (cough in inner part of elbow or into a tissue/clothing). Getting a diagnosis and starting treatment early will prevent the spread of TB to others. In addition it is recommended to wear a mask that covers the nose and mouth; and to meet outdoors, or in well ventilated areas.

Completing a course of TB medication is critically important for a person to overcome TB. If treatment is halted or doses are missed, the TB bacterium is given an opportunity to mutate, making it resistant to drugs. Drug-resistant strains are more difficult to treat and can be potentially life-threatening.

Generally, patients undergoing treatment might feel worse before feeling better. It is however important to continue treatment to achieve cure.

Some patients do experience side-effects from the TB medication. It is important to inform your health care provider about these, so that they can help you with this. You should not stop taking your medication without discussing with your health care provider first.  To be cured, one must take the TB medication daily until the end of the treatment duration.

Yes, children are at risk of contracting TB. A child can get TB the same way as an adult, inhaling TB bacteria released into the air by someone with active TB. The source of the infection is often from someone in the same household recently diagnosed with active TB.

Other factors that can put children at greater risk of getting TB include:

  • A child less than 5 years old
  • A child with HIV infection
  • A child with severe malnutrition

TB is a notifiable disease. Your close contacts (people you live and work with) will need to be notified, so that they can be screened for TB. 

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