Tuberculosis: How can we protect ourselves?


On the eve of World Tuberculosis Day, which is observed annually on March 24, Dr Vuyo Gqola, Chief Healthcare Officer of the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS), has warned that tuberculosis (TB) remains an important threat to the health of the nation, and urged South Africans to take a proactive approach to their health and infectious illnesses such as TB.

“TB is potentially a dangerous disease that can be deadly. The World Health Organization’s Global Tuberculosis Report for 2017 indicates that TB remained the top infectious disease in the world during 2016. It was also the leading cause of death among individuals with HIV. Last year, Statistics South Africa noted that TB resulted in the deaths of more than 33 000 people during 2015 and remained a leading cause of mortality in our country.”

“By adopting a healthy lifestyle and taking precautions against catching and spreading TB, South Africans can go a long way to protecting themselves against this infectious disease. We should all be aware of the signs and symptoms of TB and should visit a healthcare provider if we have reason to believe that we may have contracted this illness.”

“TB can be successfully treated and cured with antibiotics. However, the longer TB, which is a type of bacterial infection, is left untreated the more damage it can cause to the body, so it is important to commence treatment as soon as possible.  While TB can impact different parts of the body it most commonly attacks and damages the lungs,” says Dr Gqola.

TB spreads from person-to-person

TB is an infectious disease that can be passed on from person-to-person through coughs, sneezes, and spitting. People nearby may inhale the TB bacteria and become infected.

While people may contract the TB germ it does not always develop into the active form of the illness. This active form of the disease often occurs when the immune system is weakened, such as when an individual has another medical condition such as HIV or diabetes.

Most people with TB will stop spreading the illness just two weeks after they start taking medicine for it. The early treatment of TB therefore helps to ensure that individuals do not spread the disease to their  loved ones.

Anyone can develop TB

Anyone can contract TB, but some people are at greater risk of developing an active form of the disease. You should take extra care if you:

  • Suffer from poor nutrition and a lack of food
  • Have other chronic illnesses such as HIV and diabetes
  • Are in close contact with TB patients
  • Suffer from a great deal of stress
  • Take excessive amounts of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Live in poorly ventilated or overcrowded conditions

TB is not the common cold

“Many people with active TB make the mistake of thinking they may have the common cold or cough, and leave it untreated in the belief that it will go away in time. If you have a cough and are experiencing night sweats for more than three weeks, you should visit your doctor as it may be a sign that you have contracted TB,” advises Dr Gqola.

Here are some symptoms that are common in most people who have TB:

  • Coughing for longer than two weeks
  • Coughing up flecks of blood
  • Chest pains
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Night sweats, even when it is cold
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Do not stop treatment

It is important to take TB treatment as instructed by a doctor for a minimum of six months to ensure that the TB bacteria are destroyed.

According to Dr Gqola, more than 95 percent of people who are properly treated for TB and who take their medicine as per the instruction of their doctor are cured.

“The best thing you can do to support a family member or friend with TB is to make sure that they take their medication for the whole six months of treatment and that they do not stop taking the treatment when they start feeling better or because they don’t like it”.

“By not finishing your course of TB medication you are at risk of developing multi drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) – a strain of TB bacteria that has become resistant to TB drugs that is more difficult to treat and can be fatal,” concludes Dr Gqola.



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