Here is everything you need to know about tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis Is an Infectious Disease
The most basic of tuberculosis facts relates to its biological definition. It is an infectious disease, caused by various strains of mycobacteria, most commonly Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The infection is often transmitted from person to person via respiratory fluids, for example when infected individuals speak, sneeze and cough. Most infected individuals have latent tuberculosis and do not experience symptoms. However, in 10% of cases the virus progresses to active disease, which, if untreated, is fatal around 50% of the time.
In the human body, the typical pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) infection begins when mycobacteria in infected respiratory fluids reach the pulmonary alveoli. Located in the lungs, the pulmonary alveoli are sacs in the respiratory tract where gas exchange occurs. When the mycobacteria reaches them, macrophages (a type of white blood cell) identify the TB bacteria as “foreign” and envelope them, attempting to destroy the foreign microbes with reactive oxygen species and acid. The problem is, these mycobacteria have a waxy surface that protects them, and while enveloped in the white blood cell, they reproduce, killing their host and eventually causing tissue damage.
Tuberculosis Can Spread beyond the Lungs
If mycobacterium tuberculosis from this damaged tissue gets into the blood stream, it can spread throughout the body. The disease generally affects the lungs, but there are important tuberculosis facts which indicate that the infection can also spread to other parts of the body. When this happens, it’s known as Extrapulmonary Tuberculosis. The mycobacteria set up multiple foci, forming small tubercles in the tissue, white in color. This happens in about 15-20% of active TB cases, and common sites include the central nervous system, the lymphatic system, and the bones and joints. If tuberculosis spreads, it’s a sign of a more severe form of the disease. This most commonly occurs either within immuno-suppressed individuals, such as those with HIV, or in young children. For many suffering from the symptoms of TB, the infection develops over a long period of time, during which it may seem to come and go. This is because within the body, the tissue damage caused by the infection is balanced by periods of healing.
Several Factors Increase Your Chance of Developing Tuberculosis
As the above tuberculosis facts have indicated, the disease is caused by mycobacteria which are spread from person to person, normally through respiratory fluids. Therefore, a significant risk factor is a high level of contact with infected individuals. However, there are other conditions which increase the likelihood of a person contracting tuberculosis. Smokers have almost double the risk of catching the disease, and chronic lung disease, such as silicosis, dramatically increases the likelihood of infection. Alcoholism, diabetes and the use of certain medications, such as corticosteroids, can also be a risk factor. Another important consideration is living conditions. Tuberculosis is often considered to be a poverty-related disease, since malnutrition, overcrowding, drug use and a lack of medical resources are all risk factors. It is also believed that certain individuals may have an inherited genetic susceptibility to the disease, although scientists are not yet clear on the exact significance of this risk factor.
HIV Is the Biggest Risk Factor of Tuberculosis
Our understanding of tuberculosis facts has developed in modern times, and it has become clear that the most significant global risk factor today is HIV. At the present time, 13% of tuberculosis sufferers are also infected with HIV. This is because the latter virus causes the progressive failure of the human immune system, allowing an opportunistic infection such as tuberculosis to thrive. This is a particular issue in sub-Saharan Africa, where rates of HIV are at their highest.
The Symptoms of Tuberculosis Can Be Identified
If you’re trying to learn some essential tuberculosis facts, an important aspect of this knowledge is the ability to spot the disease. For those suffering from active tuberculosis, there are some classic and noticeable symptoms. The most prevalent is a chronic cough, in which the individual brings up mucus, often tinged with blood. Other symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, night sweats and chills, and sometimes nail clubbing, a deformity of the fingers.
In the past, these symptoms were used to diagnose tuberculosis. However, over time, as scientists learned more tuberculosis facts, the diagnostic process has also developed. Nowadays the diagnosis of active tuberculosis cases is done using radiology, particularly chest X-rays. This can also be done via the microscopic examination of bodily fluids.
Tuberculosis Is an Ancient Disease
No collection of tuberculosis facts would be complete without an overview of the disease’s complicated history. The origins of the infection are difficult to exactly place, but it has been suggested that Mycobacterium tuberculosis had an ancestral pathogen which was developing 40,000 years ago. This coincided with the time that Homo sapiens were expanding out of Africa. Mycobacterium tuberculosis has been found in human bones from the Neolithic period. However, when exactly tuberculosis as we know it began to infect human bodies is a hotly debated topic. Certain scientists believe tuberculosis is only around 5000-6000 years old. There are mentions of the disease in ancient texts, for example in Hippocrates’ Of The Epidemics, which describes the symptoms of “phthisis”, the Ancient Greek name for tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis Proliferated in the Middle Ages
There are many tuberculosis facts relating to the Middle Ages, in particular the unusual cures which were practiced at this time. Christian monarchs were believed to have miraculous powers when it came to curing disease, specifically the Royal Touch. Tuberculosis was even nicknamed the King’s Evil. Since its symptoms often go into remission for many months, it sometimes seemed as if the touch of a king had indeed cured the illness. Canny European monarchs took advantage of this, and used the Royal Touch to promote the idea of their divine legitimacy. Different monarchs had different styles. Henry VII, first of the Tudor reign and on shaky political ground after the War of the Roses, firmly established the practice, touching or stroking the faces of infected individuals. He did this with sufferers of various ailments, but by the time of Elizabeth I, the monarch only permitted audience with scrofula (TB) sufferers. Her successor, James I, was more squeamish still, and would make a stroking motion near the faces of his ill subjects, but refused to actually touch them.
Industrialization Increased Infection Rates of Tuberculosis
During the period of industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, many rural workers across Europe began moving to the cities, seeking job opportunities and a better life. They often met with extremely poor living conditions and overcrowding when they arrived, a perfect breeding ground for illness. These conditions contributed to an all-time peak of tuberculosis cases. However, it was also at around this time that scientists began to gather more clinical tuberculosis facts. Benjamin Marten proposed in 1720 that consumption, as it was now named, was caused by microscopic living beings in the body − though his ideas were rejected for another century.
Tuberculosis Can Be Vaccinated Against
Although early physicians were collecting tuberculosis facts and attempting to help, a cure was not developed until the 20th century. The first successful vaccine was created by Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin from a bovine-strain of tuberculosis in 1906. They named it “BCG” − Bacille Calmette-Guérin. The BCG vaccine was first administered in 1921. In Britain, a 1953 policy was passed to ensure that all secondary school pupils would be vaccinated, although initially numbers of participants were low. When administered however, the vaccine is fairly successful − a child immunized using a BCG vaccine has a 20% decreased risk of catching the infection and, in the event the infection is caught, the risk of development into the active form of the disease is slashed by 60%.
Diagnosing and Treating Tuberculosis Stops It From Spreading
As the century progressed, further tuberculosis facts and knowledge were gathered on the subject of diagnosis, and also on the treatment of the active disease. The use of X-ray examination to detect tuberculosis increased throughout the middle of the century. In 1944, a group of scientists discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic which could be effectively used against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In 1952, this was developed into an oral drug. From the 1970s-1980s onward, a drug called rifampin significantly reduced the number of tuberculosis cases worldwide. Since the mycobacteria which cause tuberculosis are so resistant, combinations of antibiotics are often used to fight the active disease.
Tuberculosis Made an 80s Comeback
At the turn of the 21st century, the World Health Organization was developing a global plan with the goal of eliminating tuberculosis altogether. It seemed to be going well, but since the 1980s the world has had to face up to some unpleasant tuberculosis facts – the disease is on the rise again. This is due to several reasons. In part, the HIV crisis allows for a rise in tuberculosis since it so devastatingly weakens the immune system. However, as well as this, new strains of tuberculosis have emerged which are antibiotic resistant.
In the 19th Century, Pale and Thin Was “In”
One of the strangest tuberculosis facts is the cultural reputation connecting it to spiritual, artistic and poetic matters. Due to its slow progress, its tendency to make sufferers pale and thin, and its lack of otherwise gruesome symptoms, tuberculosis came to be seen as somewhat romantic during the 19th century. Sufferers were thought to have a heightened sensitivity and emotional purity, and the disease was often depicted as a redemptive or spiritual journey. This perception was so widespread that the “consumptive” look became fashionable, and upper-class European women would whiten their skin deliberately to imitate the effects of the illness. This intellectual connection between tuberculosis and a pure, spiritual death , was also widespread in novels and operas at the time − for example in Puccini’s La bohème and Hugo’s Les Misérables.
“I should like to die of consumption” Was Once a Normal Thing to Say
The poet Lord Byron famously claimed “I should like to die from consumption”. John Keats, a contemporary of Byron’s, did in fact die from the disease, which he contracted after nursing his infected brother. While Keats himself may have disputed the actual glamour of his suffering, in our cultural consciousness he is remembered as a tragic and romantic artist who died too young. A similar case is true of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who was a physician himself, and bravely concealed his symptoms from the people around him while he created his most famous works.
Hollywood Still Romanticizes Tuberculosis
These may seem like bizarre tuberculosis facts to us now; a strange way to view a deadly disease. But in fact, if we consider modern works such as Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge, or the recent movie version of Les Misérables, we can see similarly romanticized depictions of the disease, indicating that this cultural impression still has some sway on the image we have of the illness.
Tuberculosis Goes by over a Dozen Names
We may think of this as a tuberculosis facts sheet, but a century ago we would have called them consumption facts, a name which the disease gained because it caused its victims to lose so much weight. Throughout history, different cultures have given the disease different names. These include the Ancient Greek phthisis, Latin consumptione, Incan chaky oncay, Indian yaksma, the French mal du siècle and the English scrofula, king’s curse, pott’s disease and the white plague.
Seals Get TB Too
Tuberculosis facts do not just relate to humans. Cattle can be infected by bovine tuberculosis, which in the past meant that untreated, infected milk was being drunk by unsuspecting individuals, causing a health risk during the 19th century. Badgers, goats and other mammals can also be affected. Scientists also theorize that it was seals which initially carried tuberculosis across the Atlantic.
Tuberculosis Caused the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident
While a review of tuberculosis facts makes it clear that the disease is a medical issue, in certain cultures there has been, or is still, a social stigma attached to it. For some, tuberculosis is associated with vampires and witchcraft. It can be seen as a “curse” on a family, since it is contagious and therefore often affects several family members at once, especially when they are living in close proximity. In 1892 in New England for example, several members of the Brown family died of consumption, and the local community believed a vampire was to blame. They exhumed the corpse of the family’s daughter, Mercy, and burnt her heart. They mixed the ashes with water and gave the mixture to her brother to drink. He died two months later.
More than One-third of the World’s Population Has the TB Infection
The virus is so contagious that scientists believe over one-third of the world’s population are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But don’t be concerned by these tuberculosis facts − in the majority of people the infection remains latent.
Tuberculosis Is Fought with DOTS
A more positive set of tuberculosis facts can be found by considering the work of the World Health Organization. Since the mid-1990s, their work has saved up to 6.8 million lives. Their treatment method is called DOTS, which stands for Directly Observed Therapy. This means that a trained health worker provides medication for the patient, and watches them swallow each dose, to ensure that antibiotic courses are completed. The research of tuberculosis facts have proven that this is the most effective method to ensure patients follow courses of treatment exactly.
Tuberculosis Makes You Cough up Blood
Commonly included in a list of tuberculosis facts is the symptom of a persistent cough, with blood in the mucus. The proper medical name for “coughing up blood” is Haemoptysis. If you experience haemoptysis at any time, you should contact your doctor immediately.