Tuberculosis, a global public health threat

Tuberculosis is a serious bacterial infection that is fast becoming a public health disaster. Currently, tuberculosis is responsible for an alarming 4,500 deaths globally every single day, making it the world’s deadliest infectious killer. What’s worse is that it’s showing no signs of slowing down!
Each year, on March 24, we commemorate World Tuberculosis Day, an initiative aimed at increasing public awareness about the disease and to increase efforts as a nation to end this global epidemic. This year, the theme is “Its Time to End TB!” In Nigeria, the National Tuberculosis and Leprosy Control Program reports that tuberculosis kills about 18 Nigerians every hour. With such a staggering number, it is really time to end tuberculosis totally. How hard could that be?

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that affects the respiratory system, most commonly the lungs, and can invade any organ in the body. There are two types of tuberculosis – the latent tuberculosis infection (people that have the TB infection but show no symptoms) and the Active Tuberculosis Disease (people infected and have symptoms such as coughing , malaise, fever, weight loss, fatigue, pains etc). Though it is highly infectious, it is a slow growing disease and can take months or even years before symptoms begin to show. It is estimated that one-third of the world’s population carries latent tuberculosis, and a person that is unaware they are infected with TB can still transmit this airborne disease without knowing it. And that is what makes the disease really deadly.

Who’s at risk of contracting TB? A lot of people are at risk for contacting TB without even knowing it. Imagine you have a roommate who has latent TB infection; you could even get infected just by breathing the same air as the person for an extended period of time, not to talk of if the person sneezes or coughs in close proximity to you.

However, our bodies have been armed to be able to fight off the infection. People who have a suppressed immune system, or undergoing cancer treatment, or have cancer or any other chronic medical conditions, or HIV patients etc unfortunately have a higher risk of contracting TB. Reducing exposure to people who have active TB infection would be one way to reduce your risk. In addition, when travelling to a country with high prevalence of TB such as India, try to avoid crowded places and always stay in well ventilated areas. There is also a vaccination for TB, the BCG vaccination, though it is not as effective in adults as it is in infants.

It is important to note that tuberculosis is curable. Yes, there are drugs such as Rifampin, Isoniazide, Pyrazinamide, and Ethambutol that can treat tuberculosis, though the infection does not respond to treatment easily. People with TB need to take daily medications for six to nine months. Sadly, most people stop taking it when they start to feel better, or due to high cost or unavailability of drugs. Again, this is very dangerous as this incomplete use of treatment has given rise to a form of TB known as the MultiDrug Resistant Tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis is already a global killer; we don’t need to add drug resistance to it. Though some countries have started using a drug called Bedaquiline which shows promising results in the treatment of to multi drug resistant bacteria, we are a long way from there.

In Nigeria, foreign donors, health agencies and organizations are doing their bit to decrease the incidence and spread of tuberculosis, a lot more still needs to be done. The United States Centre for Disease Control (US-CDC) has disclosed that Nigeria needs N147 billion to help tackle TB, as this will take care of Multi Drug Resistant-TB, as well as early diagnosis and treatment. We are currently allocating N35 billion towards the fight against Tuberculosis which is less than a quarter of the recommended amount. The government has to do more to make sure that 75% of the population is not at risk of being erased out due to this deadly disease. More education and awareness about the disease, better diagnostic services, availability of resources and more funding would definitely be a start to eradicating tuberculosis.

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