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World Tuberculosis Day: Tuberculosis continues to affect around 5,000 people each year in the UK

Posted: 24/03/2020

It is World Tuberculosis Day on 24 March 2020 and as always, Penningtons Manches Cooper continues to support the campaign to raise awareness of tuberculosis.

There is, understandably, a lot of concern and attention at the moment on the spread of the Covid-19 virus. However, it is important to maintain awareness of other diseases that also have a significant impact on the world’s population and could prove fatal if a person’s immune system is compromised.

This article from the BBC states that around one quarter of the world’s population is estimated to be infected with tuberculosis, with around 1.5 million people dying from the disease every year.

While it is encouraging to hear that tuberculosis rates in the UK are at the lowest ever recorded, it still continues to affect around 5,000 people every year.

In December 2019, Carmarthenshire in Wales suffered an outbreak of tuberculosis that began with a 64 year old woman sadly passing away just five days after diagnosis. After a community-wide screening process, 29 further active cases were confirmed and an additional 200 cases of latent tuberculosis were identified.

Despite continuing infections and recent outbreaks, many people are unaware of the symptoms and impact of the disease. There is still a misconception that it is a disease which has been largely eradicated from this country.

What is tuberculosis and what are the symptoms?

Tuberculosis is a serious infectious disease caused by bacteria, known as mycobacterium tuberculosis, which are spread through airborne droplets. Tuberculosis affects the lungs and often results in a persistent cough for more than three weeks. Other symptoms include unexplained weight loss, swellings that do not disappear, and fatigue as well as fever and night sweats.

Many of those infected show no symptoms at all and instead are identified as having ‘latent tuberculosis’. This occurs when the bacteria that causes tuberculosis lies dormant in the body as the immune system has built a barrier around the disease. The bacteria can become active and cause tuberculosis later in life, and is most likely to do so when the person’s immune system becomes weak. Any condition which suppresses the immune system can put people at an increased risk.

Accordingly, all those who have come into contact with anyone known to be infected with tuberculosis should be screened urgently, as was the case in Carmarthenshire in December 2019. Had the people with latent tuberculosis not been made aware of the diagnosis, they would have been left oblivious to the fact that were they to require immunosuppressive medication, they would be at an increased risk of suffering from tuberculosis once their immune system was no longer able to keep the latent tuberculosis at bay.

It is for this reason that it is still so important to understand that tuberculosis is not a disease that has been eradicated in this country, and medical staff and hospitals should be ready and prepared to consider the possibility of tuberculosis as part of a potential diagnosis.

Senior associate Emma Beeson has experience of acting for families who have lost loved ones due to failures to diagnose tuberculosis. She explains: “I have now represented a number of families who have sadly lost loved ones after they failed to receive treatment for tuberculosis soon enough. Evidence shows that if there is a high suspicion of tuberculosis, treatment should be commenced. This is because if not treated, tuberculosis can prove fatal. There is clear guidance issued by NICE about the need to consider treatment of tuberculosis even if diagnostic tests prove negative.”

What is the treatment?

Many patients recover from tuberculosis when it is effectively diagnosed and treated in a timely fashion.

Currently, treatment for tuberculosis involves taking a prescribed course of antibiotics for six months. Between three and four antibiotics are taken for a period of two months and then a further two antibiotics for a course of four months.

Thanks to increased awareness, two major treatments for tuberculosis were approved late last year. A new vaccine was recently announced that has the promise to ‘revolutionise tuberculosis treatment’ and is due to become available to those most in need by 2028. The vaccine is made up of proteins which trigger an immune response and was proven to be effective in adults who were already infected with mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is estimated this vaccine is just a few years away from being licensed.

Similarly, in August 2019, a new drug which treats the deadliest strain of tuberculosis has been approved. This is the first tuberculosis drug approval in more than 40 years. It is positive to hear that steps continue to be taken to improve our ability to treat tuberculosis and the key is to continue to raise awareness of the disease so patients and medical professionals consider the possibility of the disease when a patient presents with the typical symptoms.

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