World TB Day

Can you name a disease that plagued Egyptian royals, was once associated with vampires, and that was the leading cause of death due to infectious disease until the COVID-19 pandemic?

If you guessed tuberculosis, you are correct!

Tuberculosis, often abbreviated “TB”, is a contagious illness that is caused by bacteria known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease mainly impacts the lungs, but it can infect any part of the body. TB spreads from person to person through tiny droplets in the air called “aerosols” that contain TB bacteria. When someone breathes in these droplets, they can settle in the lung where the TB bacteria multiply.

In most people infected with TB, the body can “wall off” the bacteria so they aren’t able to cause active disease. This is called latent tuberculosis infection, or LTBI. But in about 5-10% of people, the body is not able to contain the infection and they develop active TB, also known as TB disease. People with active TB often have symptoms such as a cough lasting three or more weeks (sometimes with blood), fevers, night sweats, and weight loss. Thankfully, it is possible to treat TB with a combination of antibiotic medications, although treatment often lasts for many months.

The best way to prevent TB disease is to know if you have risk factors for TB such as living in a high incidence country, close contact with an active TB case, or medical conditions that can increase your risk of active TB such as HIV infection, diabetes, or the use of medications that suppress the immune system. Screening people for risk factors and testing those at high risk for TB disease is one of the important ways to find people with latent TB and treat them before it becomes a more serious, active illness.

Each year on March 24, we observe World TB Day. This day marks the anniversary of when Dr. Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that causes TB. Before Dr. Koch’s discovery, people were not sure how TB was spread. Many people thought it had to do with germs that floated through the air, but some people thought it was caused by visits from relatives who died from TB and came back as vampires to infect their families. (See? We didn’t forget to elaborate on that interesting fact!)

World TB Day doesn’t just mark the anniversary of an important scientific discovery, but also sheds light on the all the work that has been done to eliminate TB over many centuries. In many countries like the United States, TB is far less common than it was even 50 years ago. But worldwide, TB is still very common and is the second leading cause of death due to infectious disease—second only to COVID-19.

It takes the dedicated medical professionals, public health workers, and community partners to detect, diagnose, and treat cases of TB and LTBI. This World TB Day, the Virginia Department of Health acknowledges and celebrates the hard work of all those working toward TB elimination. And we acknowledge and offer our support to those with TB/LTBI and TB survivors who have overcome one of the most impactful infectious diseases in history!