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How can I avoid contracting TB on my trip? 

Think tuberculosis (TB) only happens to cattle, badgers and Victorian tragic heroines? Think again. This bacterial infection is one of the top ten causes of death worldwide. In 2016, 10.4million people fell ill with TB and 1.7million died from it.

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that usually affects the lungs – but it can spread to other parts of the body, too. It is curable – treatment is with antibiotics, but strains of TB that are multi-drug resistant are appearing, and the World Health Organization describes this as a health crisis.

A six-month course of antibiotics is used to treat TB. There is a problem with getting patients to stick to this long course, and this is why multi-drug resistant TB strains are appearing.

Where is TB most common?

Seven countries account for 64% of all cases of tuberculosis. They are:

  • India
  • Indonesia
  • China
  • Philippines
  • Pakistan
  • Nigeria
  • South Africa
How is TB spread?

Tuberculosis is transmitted via respiratory droplets and secretions – so when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is contagious, but only after exposure of several hours.

You cannot catch TB from social activities like kissing or handshaking or sharing food and drink.

Who is at risk from TB?

If you have a condition or are undergoing treatment that weakens your immune system, then you are at increased risk from TB. WHO calls HIV and TB ‘a lethal combination’. In 2016 about 40% of deaths among HIV-positive people were from TB.

The very young and the very old are also at increased risk from tuberculosis, too, as is anyone in poor health because of substance abuse, including smoking.

TB spreads in crowded conditions, so consider your accommodation. Travellers staying with relatives or friends may be a greater risk, too, particularly if there is someone in the house with TB.

What are some tuberculosis symptoms?

The symptoms of tuberculosis include a cough that lasts more than three weeks. A long-lasting cough is a cause for concern even if you don’t think you have TB. See a doctor. And the same applies if you cough up blood.

Another TB symptom is weight loss. Patients also have a poor appetite and may experience fatigue. Night sweats and fevers are another pair of TB symptoms. And patients sometimes get a swollen neck, too.

See a doctor if you think you have TB.

How can I avoid catching TB?

The vaccine against TB is recommended for those under 16 years old who will be living or working in an area with a high incidence of tuberculosis. If this applies to you, ask your travel health adviser for guidance.

If you are going to be working or volunteering among people who are likely to be infected with TB (for example in a healthcare setting, a prison or a shelter for homeless people), speak with an occupational health expert to learn more about what administrative and environmental procedure should be in place to reduce exposure to TB. There is a test for TB which you may wish to request before you leave, and then you can get re-tested on your return.