Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially fatal contagious disease that can affect almost any part of the body but is mainly an infection of the lungs. It is caused by a bacterial microorganism, the tubercle bacillus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although TB can be treated, cured, and can be prevented if persons at risk take certain drugs, scientists have never come close to wipingit out. Few diseases have caused so much distressing illness for centuries and claimed so many lives.
Tuberculosis was popularly known as consumption for a long time. In 1882, themicrobiologist Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus, at a time whenone of every seven deaths in Europe was caused by TB. Because antibiotics were unknown, the only means of controlling the spread of infection was to isolate patients in private sanitoriums or hospitals limited to patients with TB--a practice that continues to this day in many countries. When streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against M. tuberculosis, was discoveredin the early 1940s, the infection began to come under control. Although othermore effective anti-tuberculosis drugs were developed in the following decades, the number of cases of TB in the United States began to rise again in themid-1980s. This upsurge was in part again a result of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the poor areas of large cities, prisons, and homeless shelters. Infected visitors and immigrants to the United States also contributedto the resurgence of TB. An additional factor is the AIDS epidemic. AIDS patients are much more likely to develop tuberculosis because of their weakenedimmune systems.
Tuberculosis is more common in elderly persons. More than one-fourth of the nearly 23,000 cases of TB reported in the United States in 1995 developed in people above age 65. Many elderly patients developed the infection some yearsago when the disease was more widespread. There are additional reasons for the vulnerability of older people: those living in nursing homes and similar facilities are in close contact with others who may be infected. The aging process itself may weaken the body's immune system, which is then less able to ward off the tubercle bacillus. Finally, bacteria that have lain dormant for some time in elderly persons may be reactivated and cause illness.
TB also is more common in blacks, who are more likely to live under conditions that promote infection. Alcoholics and intravenous drug abusers are also atincreased risk of contracting tuberculosis. Until the economic and social factors that influence the spread of tubercular infection are remedied, there is no real possibility of completely eliminating the disease.
Tuberculosis spreads by droplet infection. This type of transmission means that when a TB patient exhales, coughs, or sneezes, tiny droplets of fluid containing tubercle bacilli are released into the air. This mist, or aerosol as it is often called, can be taken into the nasal passages and lungs of a susceptible person nearby. Unlike many other infections, TB is not passed on by contact with a patient's clothing, bed linens, or dishes and cooking utensils. The most important exception is pregnancy. The fetus of an infected mother maycontract TB by inhaling or swallowing the bacilli in the amniotic fluid.
Once inhaled, tubercle bacilli may reach the small breathing sacs in the lungs (the alveoli), where they are taken up by cells called macrophages. The bacilli multiply within these cells and then spread through the lymph vessels tonearby lymph nodes. Sometimes the bacilli move through blood vessels to distant organs. At this point they may either remain alive but inactive (quiescent), or they may cause active disease. At least nine of ten patients who harbor M. tuberculosis do not develop symptoms or physical evidence of active disease, and their x-rays remain negative. They are not contagious; however, they do form a pool of infected patients who may get sick at a later dateand then pass on TB to others.
Pulmonary tuberculosis is TB that affects the lungs. Its initial symptoms areeasily confused with those of other diseases. An infected person may at first feel vaguely unwell or develop a cough blamed on smoking or a cold. A smallamount of greenish or yellow sputum may be coughed up when the person gets up in the morning. In time, more sputum is produced that is streaked with blood. Persons with pulmonary TB do not run a high fever, but they often have a low-grade one. They may wake up in the night drenched with cold sweat when thefever breaks. The patient often loses interest in food and may lose weight.Chest pain is sometimes present. If the infection allows air to escape from the lungs into the chest cavity (pneumothorax) or if fluid collects in the pleural space (pleural effusion), the patient may have difficulty breathing. Ifa young adult develops a pleural effusion, the chance of tubercular infectionbeing the cause is very high.
Although the lungs are the major site of damage caused by tuberculosis, manyother organs and tissues in the body may be affected. The usual progression is for the disease to spread from the lungs to locations outside the lungs (extrapulmonary sites). In some cases, however, the first sign of disease appears outside the lungs. The many tissues or organs that tuberculosis may affectinclude the skin, bones, and joints; kidneys and female reproductive organs;abdominal cavity and intestines; and the meninges (tissues that cover the brain and the spinal cord). Miliary TB is a life-threatening condition that occurs when large numbers of tubercle bacilli spread throughout the body. Huge numbers of tiny tubercular lesions develop that cause marked weakness and weight loss, severe anemia, and gradual wasting of the body.
The diagnosis of TB is made on the basis of laboratory test results.Often, the first indication of TB is an abnormal chest x-ray or other test result rather than physical discomfort. On a chest x ray, evidence of the disease appears as numerous white, irregular areas against a dark background, or as enlarged lymph nodes. A PPD, the tuberculin skin test is always done to show whetherthe patient has been infected by the tubercle bacillus. To verify the test results, the physician obtains a sample of sputum or a tissue sample (biopsy)for culture.
The prognosis for recovery from TB is good for most patients, if the diseaseis diagnosed early and given prompt treatment with appropriate medications ona long-term regimen. Modern surgical methods have a good outcome in most cases in which they are needed. Miliary tuberculosis is still fatal in many cases but is rarely seen today in developed countries.
Vaccination is one major preventive measure against TB. A vaccine called BCG(Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, named after its French developers) is madefrom a weakened mycobacterium that infects cattle. Vaccination with BCG doesnot prevent infection by M. tuberculosis but it does strengthen the immune system of first-time TB patients. As a result, serious complications areless likely to develop.