Canadian Lung Association Blog

Tuberculosis Then and Now

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While tuberculosis is no longer a leading cause of death in BC, it continues to be one of the most deadly infectious diseases – and killers – worldwide. Globally, approximately 1 in 3 people are infected and in 2011 alone, 1.4 million people died from TB, 70,000 of whom were children. In Canada however, less than 2000 active TB cases are reported each year.

 TB Then

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that can affect your lungs and other parts of your body. With proper treatment, most people with TB can be cured of the infection.

TB is spread when someone with active TB coughs or sneezes, releasing the bacteria into the air. If a healthy person is exposed to active TB, the infection could remain latent, reactivating at a later time if that person’s immune system is weakened.

At the turn of the 20th century, TB was the number one killer in British Columbia. In fact, when the BC Lung Association was founded in 1904, it was originally called the Anti-Tuberculosis Society. During our first 74 years, we were at the forefront of TB treatment, education and prevention in the province.  We bought and set up a facility at Tranquille as an institution for the care and treatment of TB patients. And post-World War II our Christmas Seal trucks traveled throughout BC serving as mobile testing vehicles. Tens of thousands of people got chest x-rays and underwent TB testing thanks to these vehicles. It wasn’t until July 1978 we changed our name to the BC Lung Association.

 TB Now

We’ve come a long way since. TB is no longer the biggest threat to Canadian health. However in spite of effective drug treatments for most strains of the disease, TB is far from eradicated – in the world or in BC.

Barriers include access to medication, migration of people from high incidence areas to other countries, drug resistant strains of TB, and the vulnerability of persons with co-morbidities (other medical conditions that affect the body’s immune response like diabetes, kidney disease and HIV that make a person more vulnerable to infection).

In BC,  those most likely to develop active TB include immigrants from countries where the disease is more common , certain first nations populations (primarily those living off-reserve in urban centres who have other co-morbidities), and socially marginalized groups – the homeless, HIV positive, those without easy access to healthcare and who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems.

After the antibiotic revolution in the mid-20th century, anti-TB drugs cured 90 per cent of cases and the World Health Organization spoke confidently of eradication. This is no longer the case.  The poverty that helps the spread of TB persists, and bacteria are evolving to beat the drugs.

Dr. Victoria Cook, Director of Tuberculosis Services for the Centre for Disease Control summarizes ongoing TB control efforts, “While we’re better off than most countries in terms of numbers affected, we’re  not without TB challenges. We need a better handle on which immigrant populations most often develop active TV. We must improve communications and treatment among high risk populations as well as how we manage, isolate and learn from outbreaks.  TB remains one of the biggest global killers – only second to HIV.”

For more info contact the BC Lung Association at 1.800.665.5864.

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