March 24 is World Tuberculosis Day. This annual global event marks the 1882 discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria which causes TB, by German Nobel laureate Dr. Robert Koch. World TB Day aims to raise awareness of an affliction that, after HIV/AIDS, is the world’s greatest killer due to a single infectious agent.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some 8.6 million people worldwide fell ill with tuberculosis in 2012, and 1.3 million of them died. The overwhelming majority of those deaths occurred in developing nations, with women, children and HIV-infected individuals particularly hard-hit by the disease.
World TB Day seeks to raise awareness of this treatable and curable disease. The event calls for a global effort to diagnoses, treat and cure those suffering from tuberculosis, with the ultimate goal, as set out in the WHO Millennium Development Goal, of reversing the spread of the infection by 2015.
Here are five little-known facts about tuberculosis that might surprise you:
- About one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB: You read correctly. One in three people has latent tuberculosis, which means they’re infected with the bacteria but haven’t yet fallen ill. These people cannot transmit the disease. Those who are infected have about a one in ten chance of falling ill with the disease over the course of their lifetimes. But individuals with several risk factors, including HIV/AIDS or other immune system problems, malnutrition, diabetes and even those who smoke tobacco, are at greater risk of falling ill from TB.
- Drug-Resistant TB is alarming global health leaders: Around half a million people around the world fell ill with drug-resistant “superbug” strains of TB in 2012. But fewer than 25 percent of people with such infections were properly diagnosed, increasing the risk of death from improper medication or lack of treatment. The WHO calls “superbug” TB strains a “global health security risk.”
- TB greatly affects people with HIV/AIDS: According to the WHO, people living with HIV/AIDS are 30 times more likely to develop active tuberculosis than people without HIV. HIV and TB form a deadly combination, with each infection exacerbating the other. In 2012, around 320,000 people around the world died as a result of HIV-associated TB.
- TB is an ancient disease: The tubercle bacillus has been traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, where archaeological digs have unearthed mummified corpses with deformities consistent with tuberculosis. There are references to the disease in ancient Chinese literature dating to 4000 BC, Indian religious texts from 2000 BC and evidence of the disease is found in biblical scripture.
- TB has not been completely eradicated in the United States: According to the US Centers for Disease Control, nearly 10,000 cases of tuberculosis were reported across America in 2012. That’s a marked decline from the 15,000 cases reported a decade earlier, and the number of reported cases is the lowest it’s been since the early 1950s.