Tuberculosis (TB) has increased in Northern Ireland in recent years. Ahead of World TB Day on 24 March, the Public Health Agency (PHA) has released the latest figures which show that in 2014 in Northern Ireland there were 97* cases of TB reported. This is a significant increase (31%) from the previous year when 74 cases were reported and highlights that TB remains an important global and local public health problem.
Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is also a major public health concern worldwide, as it is more difficult to treat and can result in more serious disease with higher mortality. Globally, about 5% of TB cases are estimated to have MDR-TB.1 It is estimated that in recent years the proportion of cases with MDR-TB across the UK has remained stable at 1.6% of cases2. Since 2004, there have also been 12 cases of MDR-TB in Northern Ireland, although no MDR-TB cases were reported locally in 2014.
Dr Michael Devine, Public Health Consultant at the PHA, said: “TB is an infection caused by bacteria and usually affects the lungs, but can affect other parts of the body. It is spread from person to person when someone who has TB of the lungs coughs or sneezes. Only some people with TB in the lungs are infectious to other people and even then, close and prolonged contact is needed to be at risk of being infected.”
Any of the following symptoms may suggest TB:
• Fever and night sweats
• Persistent cough
• Losing weight
• Blood in your sputum (phlegm or spit) at any time
Both health professionals and the general public should be aware of the following key facts about TB:
• TB can be fatal if not treated
• TB is usually curable with a six-month course of antibiotics which must be completed
• Not completing the full course can encourage drug resistance
• TB disease develops slowly in the body over a period of several months
• Symptoms are: fever and night sweats, persistent cough, weight loss, blood in your sputum (phlegm or spit) at any time, a lack of appetite, fatigue and a general sense of feeling unwell
• The infection requires prolonged and close contact in order to spread from person to person
• Under half of cases in the UK have the infectious form of the disease
• Most cases present little or no risk to others
• It is very uncommon to catch TB from a child with the disease
• TB treatment is free for the patient in the UK
Dr Devine continued: “Although people may think of TB as a disease of the past, TB today remains an important public health problem throughout much of the world, causing the deaths of more than a million people each year, mostly in developing countries. With effective treatment, TB can be a curable disease and World TB Day is an opportunity to raise public awareness to stop transmission of TB by encouraging early diagnosis and treatment.
“The risk is that we become complacent, and with new drug-resistant types of TB evolving, it is essential that we maintain vigilance and know what to look out for. TB is not easily spread; close and prolonged contact is required for someone to even be at risk of being infected. Because of this, the greatest risk is to people who live in the same household.
“The increase in Northern Ireland’s TB rates in recent years reinforces the critical need for early diagnosis and specialist treatment to control this serious disease. Increased awareness, particularly among groups at high risk, as well as health professionals, is central to this.
“It is important that everyone is aware of the symptoms of TB, which include a prolonged cough, fevers and weight loss. If people are concerned about their symptoms they should contact their GP. Greater awareness can mean the condition is diagnosed and treated much earlier.”