Tuberculosis Prevention – Introduction

Tuberculosis Prevention – until researcher Selman Waksman (1888–1973) discovered the powerful antibiotic streptomycin in 1944, tuberculosis (called “consumption” because its sufferers literally wasted away as the infection consumed lung and other tissue) killed more people than any other disease.

Antibiotic regimens developed in the ensuing decade significantly reduced tuberculosis infections in the United States by the mid-1960s. By the mid-1980s, however, strains of tuberculosis began appearing that were resistant to the conventional antibiotic therapy (now called multidrug-resistant tuberculosis or MDR-TB). Concurrently hiv/aids proliferated, making those who became infected highly susceptible to other infections such as tuberculosis.

People who have diabetes, kidney disease, leukemia, or lymphoma or who receive immunosuppressive therapy such as following organ transplantation are also more susceptible to tuberculosis infection. Tuberculosis tends to develop more frequently among confined populations such as in prisons and crowded living conditions.

Doctors diagnose about 15,000 people with tuberculosis in the United States each year, about half of whom are immigrants who likely became infected in their native countries. Tuberculosis spreads by breathing droplets a person already infected with the disease breathes or coughs out into the air. Most people who have healthy immune systems can fight off infection, though the causative microorganism (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) may remain inactive in their bodies (calledlatent tuberculosis).

Only people who have active tuberculosis can spread the infection to others. A skin test can detect the presence of M. tuberculosis. Public health policy in the United States requires skin testing, called a tuberculin skin test, in numerous occupations including public safety (police, fire, and emergency aid response), teaching, food handling and preparation, and health care. The typical course of treatment for diagnosed active tuberculosis is a regimen of two or more antibiotic medications taken for 6 to 10 months.

Prevention efforts focus on screening susceptible populations for early diagnosis and treatment, and on encouraging people who show symptoms of tuberculosis to receive medical treatment. Anyone who has had close contact with a person diagnosed with tuberculosis, as well as those who have hiv/aids and a marginal tuberculin skin test result should receive more frequent screening tests and discuss prophylactic antibiotic therapy with their doctors.

Research continues the quest for a tuberculosis vaccine. The BCG vaccine currently available provides very limited protection. Doctors administer it primarily to young children exposed to non-lung forms of tuberculosis infection.

Key Measures for Preventing Tuberculosis

  • Receive periodic tuberculin skin tests to screen for the presence of M. tuberculosis.
  • Receive prophylactic antibiotic therapy when at high risk for infection.
  • Take protective measures such as wearing a surgical mask when in close contact with someone diagnosed with tuberculosis.
  • If being treated for tuberculosis, take the full course of antibiotic therapy as prescribed.


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