As Covid has drawn the attention of the masses, it has blinded the world to another familiar, albeit pressing, pandemic – tuberculosis (TB). In some parts of the world, this hidden disease continues to strike fear into hearts and causes irreparable economic harm.
With global and local health policy focused elsewhere since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, tuberculosis prevention and treatment programs in southern Mexico have regressed, leaving Mexico’s most vulnerable at even higher risk of tuberculosis infection and associated complications.
Simply put, pulmonary tuberculosis infection occurs when the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria grow in the lungs causing symptoms of a long-lasting cough, blood in the sputum, and chest pain. Other generalized symptoms of active tuberculosis infection may include decreased appetite and weight loss, fatigue, fever, chills, and night sweats. If the active infection is not treated with antibiotics that are appropriate to the strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the infection can be fatal.
Tuberculosis is an airborne infection. The bacteria travel in droplet nuclei from actively infected lungs via air currents to others nearby. Droplet nuclei are expelled whenever a person talks, sings or coughs. The bacteria then settle into a new host’s lungs. Much like Covid, people who are most likely to become infected with TB are those who live in close proximity to a person with an active infection – those with family members, coworkers, friends, patients, or schoolmates that are experiencing symptoms of TB.
Successful government programs have brought TB cases down throughout the nineties and early noughties, but, since 2004, rates have gradually risen year on year to the point where they reached a twenty-year record of 24 cases per 100,000 people in 2020. A primary reason the disease has not yet been eradicated is that diagnosis, prevention, and treatment require access to professional information and adequate resources. This leaves those that live in lower socioeconomic settings, who have less access to such resources, at higher risk of contracting, spreading, and dying from TB.
Additionally, a natural bacterial mutation occurs when people lack access to the full treatment regimen. Such mutations result in bacterial strains that are resistant to the few antibiotics we know of. This means that the longer it takes to eradicate the disease, the fewer options for treatment that are available. With a refocusing of health policy during the Covid pandemic, funding and professional attention were drawn away from Tuberculosis, resulting in a spike in both local and global cases.
Tuberculosis is a preventable and curable disease but is frequently deadly when quality information and basic resources are unavailable. On World Tuberculosis Day, we have the opportunity to remember that although Covid remains, other respiratory illnesses need to be acknowledged. Celebrate the day by sharing information – increasing tuberculosis awareness saves lives.
For more public health information on tuberculosis, visit https://www.who.int/health-topics/tuberculosis
For Times Media Mexico, Emma Ritchie is a health professional writing from Mexico.
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