Tuberculosis explosion warning as progress in eradicating ‘stagnant’ diseases

Health chiefs have warned of a rise in TB cases as progress in the fight against the disease stalls.

Tuberculosis cases rose by 7 percent in the first half of 2023, with 2,408 warnings recorded compared to 2,251 in the same period in 2022, according to the UK's Health Safety Agency.

Cases are more common in people living in England's big cities and poorer areas, the agency said.

England remains a low incidence country for tuberculosis. However, the public health agency said progress towards eradicating the disease has “stalled”.

Head of TB Unit at UKHSA, Dr Esther Robinson, said: “As we head into winter, it's important to remember that not every persistent cough, along with a fever, is caused by flu or Covid. A cough that usually has mucus and lasts more than 3 weeks can be caused by a number of other problems, including tuberculosis.'

He said TB develops slowly and it can take several weeks, months or even years before an infected person becomes ill.

“Contact your doctor if you think you're at risk so you can get tested and treated,” Dr. Robinson said.

Commenting on UKHSA's warning, David Fothergill, chair of the Local Government Association's Community Wellbeing Board, said: “TB is a preventable and treatable disease that disproportionately affects vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. Certain groups, such as immigrants and those with social risk factors such as homelessness or a history of incarceration, are more affected.

“Council staff have essential frontline roles in TB control. This includes identifying symptoms, advising health and social care professionals on appropriate infection control as well as responding to TB incidents and TB outbreaks in settings such as schools.”

The public health authority said in a warning on Thursday: “TB is not just a problem for other countries – it is affecting increasing numbers of people at home.

“TB notification rates in England remain higher in people from parts of the world where TB is more common and in large urban areas in England associated with higher levels of deprivation.”

Tuberculosis: Symptoms and how it spreads

What are the symptoms?

It mainly affects the lungs but can affect any part of the body, including the lymph nodes (glands), bones and brain causing meningitis, according to the UKHSA, which lists symptoms such as:

  • persistent cough that lasts more than three weeks and usually produces phlegm, which may be bloody
  • shortness of breath that gradually worsens
  • lack of appetite and weight loss
  • high temperature
  • night sweats
  • excessive tiredness or fatigue

How is TB spread and who is most at risk?

Tuberculosis is spread through the inhalation of small droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person. While almost anyone can get TB, those most at risk are those who live in, come from or have spent time in a country or region with high levels of TB, according to the UKHSA.

Other particularly high-risk groups include: those in close contact with an infected person; people who have a condition or are receiving treatments that weaken their immune system. the very young and old; and those in poor health due to factors such as substance use or homelessness.