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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - September 11, 2001: Tuberculosis - 2001-09-10


VOICE ONE:

This is Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Steve Ember with Science in the News, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in Science. Today, we tell about the disease tuberculosis.

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VOICE ONE:

The World Health Organization says tuberculosis is a serious health problem around the world. It says one-third of the world’s population is infected with the T-B bacteria. Between five and ten percent of people who are infected with T-B become sick at some time during their life. Eight-million people become sick with the disease each year. Two-million people die of the disease each year.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs. Most people infected with the tuberculosis bacteria never develop active T-B. However, people with weak body defense systems often develop the disease. T-B can damage a person’s lungs or other parts of the body and cause serious sickness.

The disease is spread by people who have active, untreated T-B bacteria in their lungs or throat. The bacteria are spread into the air when people with the disease talk, cough or sneeze.

VOICE TWO:

People who breathe the infected air from a T-B victim can become infected with the tuberculosis bacteria. However, most people with active tuberculosis do not expel very many T-B bacteria.

So, the spread of the disease usually does not happen unless a person spends a great deal of time with a T-B victim. Those most at risk are family members, friends and people who work closely with a T-B victim. If a person becomes infected with the tuberculosis bacteria, it does not mean he or she has the disease. Having a tuberculosis infection means that the T-B bacteria are in the body, but they may be inactive.

VOICE ONE:

After the T-B bacteria enter the body, the body’s defense system usually acts to surround them and prevent them from spreading. The immune system does this by building a wall around the bacteria similar to the way blood hardens around a cut on the skin. The bacteria can stay alive in an inactive condition inside these walls for many years.

When T-B bacteria are inactive, they cannot damage the body. Also, they cannot spread to other people. People with inactive T-B bacteria are infected, but they are not sick. They probably do not know that they infected. Millions of people have the T-B infection. For most of them, the bacteria will always be inactive. They will never suffer signs of tuberculosis.

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VOICE TWO:

If the body’s defense system is weak, however, a person can get tuberculosis soon after the T-B bacteria enter the body. Also, inactive T-B bacteria may become active if the body’s immune system becomes weak. When this happens, the bacteria can break through the protective walls. Then they begin reproducing and damaging the lungs or other organs. When T-B bacteria become active, they can cause serious sickness.

The inactive T-B bacteria can become active under several conditions. When a person becomes old, the immune system may become too weak to protect against the bacteria. A serious sickness can weaken the immune system enough to free the T-B bacteria. H-I-V, the virus that causes AIDS, can cause T-B bacteria to become active. Also, doctors warn that people who use many illegal drugs or drink too much alcohol have a higher risk of becoming sick from the tuberculosis bacteria.

VOICE ONE:

T-B can attack any part of the body. However, the lungs are the most common target of the bacteria. People with the disease show several signs. They have a cough that continues for a long period of time. People with a more severe case of tuberculosis may cough up blood.

People with the disease often suffer from high body temperatures. They suffer what are called night sweats, during which their bodies give off large amounts of water through the skin. T-B victims are also tired all the time. They are not interested in eating. So they lose weight.

One thing that is especially dangerous about T-B is that people with moderate signs of the disease may not know they have it. They may spread the disease to others without even knowing it. So, it is very important for people to get tested for tuberculosis.

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VOICE TWO:

There are several ways to test for T-B. The first is the Mantoux skin test. The test can identify most people infected with tuberculosis six to eight weeks after the bacteria entered their bodies. A substance called purified protein derivative is injected under the skin of the arm. The place of the injection is examined two to three days later.

If a raised red area forms, the person may have been infected with the tuberculosis bacteria. However, this does not always mean the disease is active.

VOICE ONE:

If the skin test shows that T-B bacteria have entered the body, doctors can use other methods to discover if the person has active T-B. However, this sometimes can be difficult because tuberculosis may appear similar to other diseases. Doctors must consider other physical signs. Also, they must decide if a person’s history shows that he or she has been in situations where tuberculosis was present.

Doctors also use an X-ray examination to show if there is evidence of T-B infection, such as damage to the lungs. Another way to test for the presence of active tuberculosis is to examine the fluids from a person’s body, especially those taken from the mouth.

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VOICE TWO:

It is very important for doctors to identify which kind of T-B bacteria are present so they can decide which drugs to use to treat the disease. More than ninety percent of T-B cases can be cured with medicines. However, the death rate for untreated T-B patients is between forty and sixty percent.

Successful treatment of T-B requires close cooperation among patients, doctors and other health care workers.

It is very important for patients to be educated about the disease and its treatment. Patients must take medicine for six to twelve months to destroy all signs of the bacteria. Sometimes patients fail to finish taking the medicine ordered by their doctors. Experts say this is because some patients feel better after only two to four weeks of treatment and stop taking their medicine.

This can lead to the T-B bacteria becoming resistant to drugs and growing stronger, more dangerous and more difficult to treat. Because of this, many doctors and other health care workers directly observe and supervise treatment of the disease in their patients.

VOICE ONE:

Experts say T-B is a preventable disease. In the United States, the goal of health organizations is to quickly identify infected people – especially those who have the highest risk of developing the disease. There are several drugs that can prevent tuberculosis in people who are at risk of becoming infected.

These people include those who live or work closely with people who have T-B. Others at risk are people who are infected with the tuberculosis bacteria but do not have the active disease.

VOICE TWO:

There are a number of ways to limit the spread of tuberculosis. All T-B patients must learn to cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. It also is important to keep air flowing through rooms so that the T-B bacteria cannot gather and infect people. Also, ultraviolet light and other devices can be used to clean infectious bacteria from the air in closed rooms.

Tuberculosis can be cured if it is discovered early and if patients take their medicine correctly. And, like other diseases, education and understanding are extremely important in preventing and curing T-B.

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VOICE ONE:

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Oliver Chanler. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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