At the turn of the 20th century, a bacterial lung disease, known at the time as consumption, haunted the lives of people all over the world. In hopes of stopping the “Great White Plague,” (called that due to the paleness of the patients) in 1904, Dr. Edward Livingston established the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, which was later renamed the American Lung Association. It would take about 50 years of horror and hard work before one researcher, Dr. Edith Lincoln, discovered that isoniazid treated and prevented the spread of tuberculosis (TB).

Today, tuberculosis is considered largely controlled in the U.S., but it is still a bigger threat than most people know. According to the CDC, there are an estimated 13 million people in the United States living with inactive TB. And without treatment, 1 in 10 of them may become sick with active TB disease, spreading this potentially deadly disease to others. TB remains the 13th leading cause of death worldwide, and the second most infectious killer after COVID-19. Rita Hickson, a disease intervention specialist in Georgia, sees everyday just how much tuberculosis is still affecting the modern world. “As a case manager I always try to talk to friends and family about TB, informing them that tuberculosis is here and try to get that information out to everyone so that we can eradicate TB for good. But we need to work together,” Hickson said.

Key Terms

  • Inactive or latent TB: asymptomatic, simple test will diagnose, is treatable so it doesn’t progress to active TB
  • Active TB: causes symptoms like coughing or difficulty breathing, can spread to others, is treatable

Diagnosing TB Today

Similar to COVID-19, tuberculosis is spread from person to person through the air, though tuberculosis requires prolonged contact with an infected individual for transmission to occur. People with compromised immune systems, including patients living with HIV, diabetes, malnutrition, or those who smoke, are considered high risk. But even with today’s medical advancements, people of all ages, races and genders can contract tuberculosis. However, certain parts of the world have higher infection rates, with two-thirds of all new cases traced to eight countries: India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa.

One way to protect people is to insist on testing more regularly, specifically before traveling or living in a community setting, such as a university. “Contact investigation is our main source of catching any new cases or infected clients and placing them on treatment as soon as they're diagnosed as positive,” Hickson said.

If screening detects signs of active tuberculosis, a patient needs to be immediately removed from their current facility and taken to a local hospital for evaluation. Depending on their current state of health, the healthcare provider can then determine which regimen to put the patient on.

Think. Test. Treat TB

In partnership with the CDC’s Think. Test. Treat TB campaign, we encourage everyone to follow these steps to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community.

  1. Think. Consider if you might be at risk for TB infection. Higher risk individuals tend to have been born in or frequently traveled to countries where TB is more common, lived in large group settings where TB is more likely to spread such as homeless shelters, prisons or jails, spent time with someone who has active TB or if you have a weakened immune system due to cancer or an organ transplant.
  2. Test. Using a skin or blood test, your healthcare provider can determine if you have TB.
  3. Treat. Latent TB can be treated so it doesn’t progress to active TB.

Today’s Medicine

Unlike the 1900s, today doctors have rapid molecular diagnostic tests that can detect the symptoms of TB with great accuracy. Also, in today's world, TB is highly curable with treatment depending on the type and time detected. For instance, active, drug-susceptible TB disease is treated with a 6-month course of antimicrobial drugs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since 2000, about 66 million lives were saved through TB diagnosis and treatment.

“We can STOP the spread of TB if we work as a team,” Hickson reminds us.

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