Today is World Tuberculosis Day. What could this mean for you?

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World Tuberculosis Day is marked every year on 24 March, highlighting one of the world’s top health challenges. With nine million new cases and 1.5 million deaths each year, tuberculosis is an ongoing epidemic.

For World TB Day 2015, the United Nations, the Stop TB Partnership and the World Health Organization are calling on all governments and health organisations to mobilise political and social commitment for further progress towards eliminating the disease as a public health burden. The theme this year is “Reach the 3 Million: Reach, Treat, Cure Everyone” – aimed at securing care for the three million who fail to be treated every year.

The date commemorates the day in 1882 when Dr Robert Koch, the German physician and pioneering microbiologist, announced to the University of Berlin’s Institute of Hygiene that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis. His discovery marked a turning point in the story of the virulent human infectious disease.

Yet over a century on, the disease continues to be a public health problem, with the highest rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. A report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and WHO found that 1,000 people a day throughout Europe develop the disease and although the continent has experienced an annual 6% decline, Europe will not be TB-free until the next century.

There has been a sustained decline in cases over the last decade but rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, MDR-TB, remain at very high levels.

WHO regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab, said only 50% of an estimated 75,000 multi-drug resistant TB patients were found in 2013 and just half were successfully cured.

“Multi-drug resistant TB is still ravaging the European region, making it the most affected area of the entire world,” he said.

TB & HIV Co-infection

When people have a damaged immune system, such as people with HIV who are not receiving antiretroviral treatment, the natural history of TB is altered. Instead of there being a long latency phase between infection and development of disease, people with HIV can become ill with active TB disease within weeks to months, rather than the normal years to decades.

The risk of progressing from latent to active TB is estimated to be between 12 and 20 times greater in people living with HIV than among those without HIV infection. This also means that they may become infectious and pass TB on to someone else, more quickly than would otherwise happen. Overall it is considered that the lifetime risk for HIV negative people of progressing from latent to active TB is about 5-10%, whereas for HIV positive people this same figure is the annual risk.

Many people living with HIV are now taking antiretroviral treatment for their HIV infection. This helps their immune system, but the risk of developing active TB is still higher than in people without HIV infection. Also, there are reports from some African countries that people are starting to become infected with drug resistant HIV. This makes it much more difficult to provide them with effective antiretroviral therapy, and this in turn could result in millions more, of the estimated 40 million people thought to be living with HIV worldwide, developing active TB in the next few years.

Find out how the body reacts to tuberculosis here

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