Tuberculosis in the UK - the disease that never went away

Posted: 24/03/2016


Today is World Tuberculosis Day and charities are uniting to raise awareness that tuberculosis (TB) remains an epidemic in much of the world. 

It may be a surprise to many of us, but TB is still very much in existence and it is estimated that 1.5 million people die worldwide each year from the disease. The perception therefore that TB has been eradicated as a result of modern day medicine is incorrect. But more than 6,500 cases of TB were reported in England in 2014, almost 40% of which were in London. 

Another misconception is that TB is only an active disease. People do not realise that one third of the world’s population is infected with latent TB and up to 10% of them will become active at some point in their lifetime.

The 24 March is commemorated each year as the date when Dr Robert Koch announced his discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis – the bacteria which causes TB - and paved the way towards diagnosing and curing the disease. However, despite this development back in 1882, misdiagnosis of TB still exists. 

What is tuberculosis?

TB is an infectious disease which can be cured but, if left untreated, can prove fatal. It is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis and is spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person. 

TB mainly affects the lungs. However, it can affect any part of the body, including the glands, bones and nervous system. 

In some people, a defensive barrier is built around the infection and the TB bacteria can lie dormant. This is latent tuberculosis where the person has been infected with the bacteria but does not have any symptoms of active disease and is not infectious. If the immune system fails to build this defensive barrier or the barrier later fails, then latent tuberculosis can spread within the lungs or develop in other parts of the body. 

Miliary tuberculosis is the wide spread of the TB bacteria which is carried around the body in the blood. It can occur in an individual organ, in several organs or throughout the entire body. It is characterised by a large amount of TB bacteria. It can be missed and, if left untreated, it is fatal. It is therefore important to obtain an early diagnosis to ensure that treatment is given to increase the likelihood of survival. 

The typical symptoms of TB

  • A persistent cough that lasts more than three weeks and usually brings up phlegm, which may be bloody
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • High temperature (fever)
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • New swellings that have not gone away after a few weeks

How is it treated?

Whilst TB is a serious condition which left untreated can prove fatal, it can be cured with correct medication. 

Most people will be given a course of antibiotics for around six months or more. Different types of antibiotics are used because some forms of TB are resistant to certain types of antibiotics. 

Tuberculosis vaccination

The BCG vaccine is 70-80% effective against the most severe forms of TB. 

BCG vaccinations are currently only recommended for groups of people who are at a higher risk of developing TB. This includes all babies born in some areas of inner-city London where TB rates are higher than in the rest of the country; children who have close family members from countries with high TB rates; and children who have come into close contact with somebody infected with respiratory TB. 

The BCG vaccination is rarely given to anyone over the age of 16 and never over the age of 35. This is because it does not work very well in adults. It is, however, given to adults aged between 16 and 35 who are at risk of TB through their job, such as some healthcare workers.

Penningtons Manches has acted for several clients who have lost their loved ones due to failings on the part of healthcare professionals to appropriately investigate, diagnose and treat TB. In 2015 we reached a successful settlement for the family of Mrs Iris Smith, after Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust admitted its negligent failure to treat her for miliary tuberculosis in 2012 

We have also been instructed by another family whose mother also died from TB. Although we are in the early stages of our investigation in this case, it is clear that the circumstances of the case are extremely similar to that of Mrs Smith’s.  

Emma Beeson, the clinical negligence solicitor who dealt with Mrs Smith’s case and is dealing with the new instruction, comments: “The fact that tuberculosis is a treatable and a curable disease is what makes these cases so upsetting and frustrating. The key is to ensure that the possibility of tuberculosis is considered at the earliest opportunity and treatment commenced immediately. 

“There is no doubt that raising awareness of TB is the key to ensuring that people understand the signs and symptoms to look out for and seek medical advice as soon as possible." 

Penningtons Manches LLP is supporting World Tuberculosis Day and is encouraging people to understand more about this potentially devastating disease. 

Do you have concerns?

If you feel that there has been a failure by healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat a loved one’s tuberculosis sooner, please call 0800 328 9545 and ask to speak to one of our team members who specialise in these types of cases.  

Cases involving a failure to diagnose and treat tuberculosis, particularly miliary tuberculosis, are quite specialised and it is important to choose the right legal representation to investigate these cases.


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