About TB

Symptoms, Transmission, Preventation and Treatment of TB

Tuberculosis or TB (short for Tubercle Bacillus), is a common and often deadly infectious disease caused by mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis in humans. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body. It is spread through the air, when people who have the disease cough, sneeze, or spit. Most infections in humans result in an asymptomatic, latent infection, and about one in ten latent infections eventually progresses to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than 50 per cent of its victims.

A third of the world’s population is thought to be infected with M. tuberculosis, and new infections occur at a rate of about one per second. The proportion of people who become sick with tuberculosis each year is stable or falling worldwide but, because of population growth, the absolute number of new cases is still increasing.

In 2007 there were an estimated 13.7 million chronic active cases, 9.3 million new cases, and 1.8 million deaths, mostly in developing countries. In addition, more people in the developed world are contracting tuberculosis because their immune systems are compromised by immunosuppressive drugs, substance abuse, or AIDS. The distribution of tuberculosis is not uniform across the globe; about 80 per cent of the population in many Asian and African countries test positive in tuberculin tests, while only 5-10 per cent of the US population test positive.

Signs and symptoms

When the disease becomes active, 75 per cent of the cases are pulmonary TB, that is, TB in the lungs. Symptoms include chest pain, coughing up blood, and a productive, prolonged cough for more than three weeks. Systemic symptoms include fever, chills, night sweats, appetite loss, weight loss, pallor, and often a tendency to fatigue very easily.

In the other 25 per cent of active cases, the infection moves from the lungs, causing other kinds of TB, collectively denoted extrapulmonary tuberculosis. This occurs more commonly in immunosuppressed persons and young children. Extrapulmonary infection sites include the pleura in tuberculosis pleurisy, the central nervous system in meningitis, and the lymphatic system in scrofula of the neck, the genitourinary system in urogenital tuberculosis, and bones and joints in Pott’s disease of the spine. An especially serious form is disseminated TB, more commonly known as miliary tuberculosis. Extrapulmonary TB may co-exist with pulmonary TB as well.


When people suffering from active pulmonary TB cough, sneeze, speak, or spit, they expel infectious aerosol droplets 0.5 to 5 µm in diameter. A single sneeze can release up to 40,000 droplets. Each one of these droplets may transmit the disease, since the infectious dose of tuberculosis is very low and inhaling less than ten bacteria may cause an infection.

People with prolonged, frequent, or intense contact are at particularly high risk of becoming infected, with an estimated 22 per cent infection rate. A person with active but untreated tuberculosis can infect 10–15 other people per year. Others at risk include people in areas where TB is common, people who inject drugs using unsanitary needles, residents and employees of high-risk congregate settings, medically under-served and low-income populations, high-risk racial or ethnic minority populations, children exposed to adults in high-risk categories, patients immunocompromised by conditions such as HIV/AIDS, people who take immunosuppressant drugs, and health care workers serving these high-risk clients.

Transmission can only occur from people with active – not latent – TB. The probability of transmission from one person to another depends upon the number of infectious droplets expelled by a carrier, the effectiveness of ventilation, the duration of exposure, and the virulence of the M. tuberculosis strain. The chain of transmission can, therefore, be broken by isolating patients with active disease and starting effective anti-tuberculous therapy. After two weeks of such treatment, people with non-resistant active TB generally cease to be contagious. If someone does become infected, then it will take at least 21 days, or three to four weeks, before the newly infected person can transmit the disease to others. TB can also be transmitted by eating meat infected with TB. Mycobacterium bovis causes TB in cattle.


Tuberculosis is diagnosed definitively by identifying the causative organism (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) in a clinical sample (for example, sputum or pus). When this is not possible, a probable diagnosis may be made using imaging (X-rays or scans) and/or a tuberculin skin test (Mantoux test).

The main problem with tuberculosis diagnosis is the difficulty in culturing this slow-growing organism in the laboratory (it may take 4 to 12 weeks for blood or sputum culture). A complete medical evaluation for TB must include a medical history, a physical examination, a chest X-ray, microbiological smears, and cultures. It may also include a tuberculin skin test, a serological test. The interpretation of the tuberculin skin test depends upon the person’s risk factors for infection and progression to TB disease, such as exposure to other cases of TB or immunosuppression.

Currently, latent infection is diagnosed in a non-immunized person by a tuberculin skin test, which yields a delayed hypersensitivity type response to an extract made from M. tuberculosis. Those immunized for TB or with past-cleared infection will respond with delayed hypersensitivity parallel to those currently in a state of infection, so the test must be used with caution, particularly with regard to persons from countries where TB immunization is common.

Tuberculin tests have the disadvantage of producing false negatives, especially when the patient is co-morbid with sarcoidosis, Hodgkins lymphoma, malnutrition, or most notably active tuberculosis disease. The newer interferon release assays (IGRAs) overcome many of these problems. IGRAs are in vitro blood tests that are more specific than the skin test. IGRAs detect the release of interferon gamma in response to mycobacterial proteins such as ESAT-6. These are not affected by immunization or environmental mycobacteria, so generate fewer false positive results. There is also evidence that the T-SPOT.TB IGRA is more sensitive than the skin test.

New TB tests are being developed that offer the hope of cheap, fast and more accurate TB testing. These include polymerase chain reaction assays for the detection of bacterial DNA. The development of a rapid and inexpensive diagnostic test would be particularly valuable in the developing world.


TB prevention and control takes two parallel approaches. In the first, people with TB and their contacts are identified and then treated. Identification of infections often involves testing high-risk groups for TB. In the second approach, children are vaccinated to protect them from TB. No vaccine is available that provides reliable protection for adults. However, in tropical areas where the levels of other species of mycobacteria are high, exposure to nontuberculous mycobacteria gives some protection against TB.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared TB a global health emergency in 1993, and the Stop TB Partnership developed a Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis that aims to save 14 million lives between 2006 and 2015. Since humans are the only host of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, eradication would be possible. This goal would be helped greatly by an effective vaccine.


Treatment for TB uses antibiotics to kill the bacteria. Effective TB treatment is difficult, due to the unusual structure and chemical composition of the mycobacterial cell wall, which makes many antibiotics ineffective and hinders the entry of drugs. The two antibiotics most commonly used are rifampicin and isoniazid. However, instead of the short course of antibiotics typically used to cure other bacterial infections, TB requires much longer periods of treatment (around 6 to 24 months) to entirely eliminate mycobacteria from the body. Latent TB treatment usually uses a single antibiotic, while active TB disease is best treated with combinations of several antibiotics, to reduce the risk of the bacteria developing antibiotic resistance. People with latent infections are treated to prevent them from progressing to active TB disease later in life.

Drug resistant tuberculosis is transmitted in the same way as regular TB. Primary resistance occurs in persons who are infected with a resistant strain of TB. A patient with fully susceptible TB develops secondary resistance (acquired resistance) during TB therapy because of inadequate treatment, not taking the prescribed regimen appropriately, or using low quality medication.

Drug-resistant TB is a public health issue in many developing countries, as treatment is longer and requires more expensive drugs. Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is defined as resistance to the two most effective first-line TB drugs: rifampicin and isoniazid. Extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) is also resistant to three or more of the six classes of second-line drugs.

The DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment Short-course) strategy of tuberculosis treatment recommended by WHO was based on clinical trials done in the 1970s by Tuberculosis Research Centre, Chennai, India. The country in which a person with TB lives can determine what treatment they receive.

This is because multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is resistant to most first-line medications, the use of alternative treatments, often referred to as “second-line” antituberculosis medications, is necessary to cure the patient. However, the price of these medications is high; thus poor people in the developing world have no or limited access to these treatments.

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