What is tuberculosis?

A brief summary.

Tuberculosis, often called TB for short, is a bacterial disease that can attack any part of the body, most frequently the lungs. The bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is an airborne bacteria, meaning that it is passed from person to person through the air, i.e. via coughing, sneezing, laughing or even just talking. (Yet normally to become infected with TB, a person has to be in close contact with someone who has TB disease for a long period of time.) Once the leading cause of death in the United States, TB cases in this country have since decreased in number. However, TB is an ever-increasing world-wide problem, and one that has also become more of a problem in the United States.

TB infection vs. TB disease

One important distinction to make when dealing with TB is distinguishing between TB infection and TB disease. TB infection means that a person harbors dormant tuberculin bacteria in their body, although they are not contagious, nor do they suffer any ill-effects as a result of the bacteria. The body’s immune system is able to control the bacteria, making them inactive. However, such inactive bacteria are still alive and have the potential of becoming active. TB disease is developed when the immune system cannot control the growth and multiplication of the bacteria. Usually the people who develop TB disease have weak immune systems for any one of a variety of reasons. Babies and young children generally have weaker immune systems, and those infected with HIV have severely weakened immune systems. Also, people who are malnourished, or have a low body weight are especially at risk. There are many other conditions that are known to weaken the immune system, although the ones already mentioned present the biggest problems in Sudan. Symptoms for TB disease vary, as it can attack any part of the body - the lungs, kidney, spine, or brain for example.

While TB is an infectious disease, it is treatable and preventive measures can be taken, both for uninfected and infected individuals. Difficulties arise in areas like the Sudan, where other disease, famine, and socio-political conflict compound the problem.

Many websites contain interesting information about TB. Here are a few links:

Questions and Answers About TB

W.H.O. Fact Sheet


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