Detecting Tuberculosis Early

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There are estimated to be as many as two million tuberculosis deaths every year, and the disease is gradually getting worse. Treatment can require months-long courses of antibiotics to eliminate tuberculosis, particularly if it is active, creating a risk of liver toxicity. Moreover, drug-resistant tuberculosis is a big problem for doctors, as successive treatments become less and less effective against the disease. Many patients stop treatment after only a few weeks, hastening drug resistance and creating the possibility of the disease recurring. If the disease is inactive—as many as one in three people worldwide have tuberculosis in this latent form—it is not contagious and treatment is shorter, but still longer than most treatments take.

Five to ten percent of people with the latent form of the disease, and 30 percent of people with latent tuberculosis and HIV infection, develop active disease, in which they are contagious and show symptoms. Coughing blood is perhaps the best-known symptom, and one of the most obvious, though it doesn’t always occur. Chest pains and any cough that lasts more than two weeks could be signs of tuberculosis. Fatigue, weight loss, and poor appetite are also common. Chest x-rays and blood and tissue tests can be used to find indications of disease, though cultures can take a long time to produce results.

New research has shown that lung breakdown products are found in the blood and pulmonary fluids of tuberculosis patients, which may help identify the condition earlier than current tests can. The researchers say this is important because it can lead to starting treatment earlier and monitor treatment once it has been started. This will help reduce incidence and contagion, reducing the toll the illness takes.

Another study found another way to reduce the impact, a novel, more effective treatment to which no resistance has been developed. The bacterium that causes tuberculosis needs energy to thrive; several treatments are being investigated that cut off its sources of energy. One line of research is focused on ways to deprive the microbe of its food. Another looks at its metabolic process and involves a chemical compound that has been found to prevent the microbe’s metabolism in lab conditions.

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