When he was nineteen years old, George Washington (whose birthday is today, you know) had never been farther than 200 miles from where he was born. As a matter of fact, he’d hardly been out of the state of Virginia.
His brother’s tuberculosis diagnosis gave him exposure to a different world and two serious diseases. You see, Lawrence Washington was advised to “breathe in fresh air.” Spending the winter in Barbados was the doctors’ orders and George went along for the ride.
Upon arriving on the island, he contracted smallpox from which he recovered quickly. But then, as is common with tuberculosis, his constant contact with his brother was responsible for him contracting that disease. And, unlike many others of the day stricken with TB, he survived and went on to make history.
If you think TB has been eradicated, think again. In the U.S. today, it isn’t the death sentence that it once was, but, the World Health Organization says that it’s still one of the top ten causes of death worldwide.
“In 2015, 10.4 million people fell ill with TB and 1.8 million died from the disease,” WHO says. “Over 95 percent of TB deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.”
The CDC says that “a total of 9,557 TB cases were reported in the United States in 2015. This represents a 1.6 percent increase in the number of TB cases compared to cases reported in 2014. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia each reported an increase in TB cases from 2014. Despite the increase in the number of cases, the TB incidence rate per 100,000 persons has remained relatively stable at approximately 3.0 since 2013.”
Even though we mostly think of TB as a lung disease, it can attack almost any part of the body. As the bacteria settles and grows in the lungs it can move through the blood stream to the kidneys, spine and brain (which is what killed the author Thomas Wolfe, in case you didn’t know).
Despite it being airborne bacteria, it’s not easy to become infected with tuberculosis. TB is not spread by shaking hands, sharing food or drink, touching bed linens or toilet seats, sharing toothbrushes or kissing, according to the CDC.
“People with TB disease are most likely to spread it to people they spend time with every day. This includes family members, friends and coworkers or schoolmates,” the CDC says.
It’s important to know that there is a difference between being infected with TB (latent TB) and having clinically active tuberculosis. The American Lung Association explains:
“Someone who is infected with TB has the TB germs, or bacteria, in their body. The body’s immune system is protecting them from the germs and they are not sick. This is referred to as latent TB.
“Someone with TB disease is sick and can spread the disease to other people. A person with TB disease needs to see a doctor as soon as possible. This is referred to as active TB.”
People with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for developing active TB. They include those receiving chemotherapy, children under five, those with HIV/AIDS, those being treated for autoimmune disorders and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease. People who were healthy at the time of initial infection may develop the disease months or years later when their bodies can’t fight the germs.
“Symptoms of active disease include cough, loss of weight and appetite, fever, chills and night sweats as well as symptoms related to the function of a specific organ or system that is affected; for example, coughing up blood or sputum in TB of the lungs, or bone pain if the bacteria have invaded the bones,” ALA says.
Because symptoms of tuberculosis may mirror other diseases, it’s critical to be checked out by your healthcare provider if you exhibit any of the above symptoms. If you think you’ve been exposed to tuberculosis, ask your PCP for a TB test.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.