The World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging leaders from around the world to “Unite to End TB” on this year’s World TB Day, which takes place on March 24. The date was chosen in commemoration of the day in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch announced his discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB). The ground breaking discovery was an important step toward diagnosing and curing TB.

The WHO estimates that one quarter of the world’s population is infected with TB. Globally, TB ranks alongside HIV as a leading cause of death from infectious disease. Despite being curable, TB takes the lives of three people every minute in countries around the world. It is transmitted by the airborne route and can infect anyone exposed to the bacteria. While it disproportionately affects low-income countries, it also affects people living in developed countries like Canada.

RR-2016-03-22-World-TB-DAy-posterThe incidence rate of TB is higher in Saskatchewan than the national average, which was estimated at 4.7 per 100,000 in 2013. In Saskatchewan, it was 6.9 per 100,000 for the same year. In some northern Saskatchewan communities, the rate is significantly higher than the rest of the province.

The good news is that TB in Saskatchewan is on the decline.

“Overall, our TB rates are going down,” says Dr. Johnmark Opondo, Deputy Medical Health Officer with Saskatoon Health Region. “In 2013, there were 78 new cases of TB diagnosed in Saskatchewan as compared to 91 in 2008. Throughout the province, in the five year period between 2008 and 2013, the rate decreased from 8.8 to 6.9 per 100,000.”

“However, with fewer TB cases being seen in central and southern Saskatchewan, we tend to forget how TB presents,” continues Dr. Opondo. “Anyone who is coughing continuously for two weeks or longer, and has no clear explanation as to why they’re coughing, should see their family doctor immediately to rule out tuberculosis.”

Signs, symptoms and treatment of TB

The signs and symptoms of active TB include:

  • Cough lasting two weeks or longer
  • Pneumonia that does not improve with antibiotics
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal chest x-ray.

Diagnosing active TB requires a complete medical evaluation that typically includes a medical history, physical examination, chest x-ray and sputum sample. A TB skin test or TB blood test is used to diagnose latent TB infection.

“Latent TB occurs when people carry the TB bacteria in their body but do not display any signs of illness, because the bacteria are inactive,” Dr. Opondo explains, adding that people with latent TB infection cannot spread the bacteria to others. “The majority of people with latent TB never develop active TB, except in certain situations; for example, HIV infection, diabetes and cancer.”

In general, treatment for active TB takes six to nine months or longer compared to treatment of latent TB, which may be as short as four months. It is important for people with either diagnosis to complete their medication and to take it exactly as prescribed. For those with active TB, bacteria may become resistant to the drugs if not taken as prescribed.

“There’s still a lot of fear and stigma surrounding TB, but it’s important to remember that with prompt diagnosis and treatment, TB is a curable disease. We can and do successfully treat it with antibiotics every day,” says Dr. Opondo.

“Overall, the Saskatchewan provincial TB Prevention and Control program, in collaboration with many partners, is going in the right direction,” says Dr. Opondo. “I’m optimistic that we will soon reach the national rates throughout Saskatchewan, and eventually eliminate the disease if we continue to purposefully address TB and the conditions that promote its spread.”

Visit Unite to End TB for more information on this year’s global campaign.

Fast facts about TB:

  • TB can be prevented, treated and cured.
  • TB is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis).
  • TB is spread from person to person through the air by coughing, sneezing and talking.
  • TB usually affects the lungs, but it can affect other areas such as the brain, spine and kidneys.
  • Without treatment active TB disease can be fatal.