Many people think of tuberculosis as a disease of the past, but the reality is that TB is an urgent public health crisis. Each year, more than 8.5 million people become sick with TB and 1.3 million people die of the disease. In fact, TB is the leading cause of death among people living with HIV, causing one out of every four deaths. It is also the third leading cause of death for women, affecting people during their most productive years (ages 15-44).
While control programs are making progress in reducing deaths from TB, global TB incidence relative to population growth has remained consistently high. There are almost 1 million more cases of TB in the world today (8.6 million) than in 1990 (7.8 million). And because of growing drug resistance, TB is becoming much more difficult and expensive to treat.
Women and children are particularly vulnerable, with childhood TB remaining a hidden epidemic in most countries. Every year, approximately 500,000 children develop TB, and close to 75,000 die from the disease. By 2010, there were more than 10 million children left orphaned by TB.
TB is also the third leading cause of death for women of reproductive age (15-44 years) worldwide, killing half a million women in 2011. It is a known risk factor for pregnant mothers and their infants. Babies born to women with TB are more likely to be premature or low birth-weight, increasing the risk of neonatal death, and pregnant women with active TB are more than four times more likely to die in childbirth. Transmission from mother to child is estimated to be 15 percent within the first three weeks of birth.
What Is TB?
Tuberculosis is an airborne infectious disease that has existed for centuries, with evidence of the disease found in ancient Egyptian mummies. TB used to be called consumption, and in the 19th and 20th centuries was the leading cause of death in industrialized countries. Caused by a bacterial infection with M. tuberculosis, TB most commonly affects the lungs but can affect any organ in the body. The bacterium M. tuberculosis is present in a third of the world’s population - around 2 billion people. Although most will never become sick with the disease, 10 percent of those infected will develop active TB disease and will be able to spread the infection to others simply by coughing or sneezing. On average, a person with active TB will spread the disease to 10 to 15 people within a year. Symptoms of tuberculosis include coughing up blood, night sweats, weight loss and exhaustion.
Tuberculosis is especially dangerous to people with compromised immune systems. TB is the leading killer among those with HIV/AIDS, who are more susceptible to developing the disease. In South Africa, where there is a high burden of HIV/AIDS, the incidence of tuberculosis has increased 400 percent in the past 15 years. People with diabetes also have a higher risk of contracting TB, and when someone has both TB and diabetes, treatment for each disease is much more complicated.