My top 10 TB facts for World TB day

By Siouxsie Wiles 24/03/2015


TB Culture” by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. George Kubica – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #4428.

The 24th of March is World TB day, held to raise awareness of the epidemic that is tuberculosis (TB). Why the 24th of March? Because this is the date in 1882 when Dr Robert Koch announced that he had discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for TB. So here are my top 10 TB facts:

1. TB is a lung disease that humans have had for a long long time. Each wave of early humans who left Africa took TB with them, so there are lineages of TB like there are lineages of people (1).

2. TB, or consumption as it was known, was thought to be a hereditary disease, rather than an infectious one. Many famous artists, writers and composers had TB which probably helped its image. It was the forerunner to ‘heroin chic’. Consumption wasn’t feared like the plague or cholera were because it was a slow death giving people time to put their affairs in order.

3. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 there were an estimated 8.6 million new TB cases and 1.3 million people died from the disease.

4. The TB bacterium is a bugger to kill. Easy to treat TB = 6 months of a cocktail of antibiotics.

5. Hard to treat TB = 18 months to 2 years of treatment with a cocktail of antibiotics.

6. There are now strains of M. tuberculosis circulating around the world that are resistant to all antibiotics in clinical use. Treatment options include surgery to remove the infected parts of the lungs, or isolation.

7. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people worldwide have the TB bacterium in their lungs – they aren’t infectious but are a huge reservoir of people that can go on to get active infectious TB.

8. If you think we don’t have TB in NZ, think again. In 2013 there were 263 new cases. Three of these people died (2).

9. If you think TB just affects the poor, think again. If you are human & breathing you can catch TB. I recently gave a talk to some wealthy retired society ladies and one of them came up to me afterwards to say she had been treated for TB a few years ago. She said she was horrified when her doctor told her as she had thought “people like me don’t get TB”. Wrong!

10. If you were BCG vaccinated as a child so think you are protected, think again. BCG does not protect for life. And unfortunately it’s not just a simple case of getting a booster.


1. Gagneux, S (2012). Host–pathogen coevolution in human tuberculosis. Philosophical Transactions B. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0316

2. Institute of Environmental Science and Research Ltd (ESR) (2015). Tuberculosis in New Zealand: Annual Report 2013.

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  • What are the chances that a carrier of TB will actually develop an illness?