Tuberculosis in the AIDS Era; More Prevalent Than AIDS, Deadlier Than Some Forms of Cancer, Not Enough Attention Is Being Focused on the Silent Plague

Nutrition Health Review, Summer 1991 | Go to article overview

Tuberculosis in the AIDS Era; More Prevalent Than AIDS, Deadlier Than Some Forms of Cancer, Not Enough Attention Is Being Focused on the Silent Plague


Q: What are the most common symptoms of tuberculosis?

A: Symptoms often resemble those of influenza. Other symptoms include sudden weight loss, low persistent fever, chronic fatigue, and heavy sweating, especially at night. Later stages of the disease's development include cough with sputum that becomes progressively thicker, yellowish and tinged with blood.

Q: Is there an effective vaccine to prevent tuberculosis?

A: Vaccination consists of introducing a strain of bacille calmetta Guerin (BCG), an attenuated form of tuberculosis bacterium. Some health authorities are enthusiastic about its effectiveness; many dispute its safety.

Q: How is the germ responsible for tuberculosis described?

A: The scientific name is Mycobacterium tuberculosis humanis, also known as tubercle bacillus. It is part of a large family of bacteria, including one group that causes tuberculosis in cows, polluting the milk supply. Leprosy is another disease that owes its existence to the microbe which grows best in darkness and in moist places but can survive only up to two hours in direct sunlight. Bacteria of this species have been known to emerge virulent after being stored for over ten years. The ability to reproduce is awesome; a single organism will replicate itself within a month into the billions. It travels in airborne droplets.

Q: How is tuberculosis transmitted?

A: By inhalation of the mycobacterium coughed or sneezed into the air by a person in the contagious phase of the disease. It is usually curable but can be fatal when left untreated.

Q: If treated, how long does it take for the disease to be arrested?

A: Not every case is treated successfully; but when the prognosis is good, the individual becomes noncontagious within two or three weeks.

Q: Under what conditions do the tuberculosis germs thrive?

A: Poor ventilation, lack of sunlight in enclosed areas, stagnant air, and crowded shelters, subways, or elevators all contribute to heightening an individual's vulnerability to infection.

Q: Since not everyone who breathes the germ comes down with tuberculosis, what is the secret of resistance?

A: It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of the population may have harbored the tubercle bacillus at some time in their lives. The immune system, in these cases, manages to fight off the infectious invasion.

Others, less fortunate, merely succeed fin having the antibodies of the immune system only encase the germ, keeping it immobile forever or until immunity drops and tuberculosis develops. (Read the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, page 4, this issue.)

Q: What is the relationship between the AIDS virus and the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis?

A: The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) gradually incapacitates the immune system, predisposing the individual to many microbes, including the tubercule bacillus. AIDS patients are especially vulnerable to tuberculosis (TB).

Q: Can the rise in tuberculosis cases be attributed to the influx of immigrants into the United States during the past decade?

A: Although tuberculosis is proliferating among immigrants from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and other countries where tuberculosis is rampant, our native population is equally vulnerable to deteriorating conditions in the United States attributable to homelessness, drug addiction, degenerative lifestyles, and poor nutrition.

Q: Tuberculosis is considered a disease of the lungs. How frequently does it lodge in other organs of the body?

A: The germ enters the body through the lungs, joins the blood stream, and may settle in various organs. Because it thrives best in the abundance of oxygen in the lungs, the tubercle bacillus prefers invading the lungs. The liver, lymph nodes, bone marrow and spleen also fight the invader as it attempts to penetrate those organs. …

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