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Information about tuberculosis

6 februari 2018

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. These bacteria are called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The most common form is lung tuberculosis. The bacteria can also occur in other organs.

How common is tuberculosis?

The number of tuberculosis patients in the Netherlands is gradually decreasing. About 850 people are infected with this disease every year.

Tuberculosis is a major problem in many other countries. Nine million people catch this disease, and more than one million people die from the consequences of tuberculosis, often because they do not receive the right treatment. This sometimes makes the disease difficult to combat. That mainly happens when the bacteria are resistant to the most common medicines and when the patient is HIV positive.

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis?

The most common symptoms of lung tuberculosis are coughing (sometimes coughing up blood), a fever, fatigue, weight loss and sweating at night. Some people have no symptoms, however, even though a chest X-ray reveals abnormalities.

How is tuberculosis treated?

Tuberculosis can be treated with a combination of various medicines (antibiotics). The treatment takes at least six months and can cause side-effects. If the bacteria are resistant to the two most powerful antibiotics, we call it multi-resistant tuberculosis and treatment often lasts a long time (at least nine months).

Who attends to the patient?

The specialist (in hospital or at the Public Health Service (GGD)) who is treating the patient and prescribing medication will inform the GGD about the treatment. A GGD nurse will visit the patient. The nurse can answer all the patient’s questions about the disease and will give practical tips on how to deal with the disease, on taking the medication and will give advice with regard to preventing other people from catching it. The nurse will maintain contact with the patient throughout the treatment.

How does contact tracing work?

If a person has lung tuberculosis, they can infect other people. People in close contact with the patient are at most risk. They will therefore be the first to be asked to come to be tested.

The nurse will help the patient to draw up a list of names and will ask the people who have been in close contact with the patient to come to be tested.

How do you become infected with the tuberculosis bacteria?

When a person with infectious lung tuberculosis coughs, tuberculosis bacteria are released into the air and can spread. Other people can breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

Tuberculosis is not contracted by touching or kissing the patient. Neither can you be infected by cutlery, books or clothes the patient has touched.

What happens if I have been infected with the tuberculosis bacteria?

After an infection with the tuberculosis bacteria, there is about a 10% risk that you will develop the tuberculosis disease. Most people develop tuberculosis in the first two years of being infected, although that may not happen until many years later. The risk of becoming ill after being infected is greater for people with lower resistance due to illness or due to the use of certain medication.

An infection with tuberculosis bacteria can be treated effectively. If tests reveal that there is an infection with tuberculosis bacteria, the doctor will prescribe medication (prophylaxis). This course of treatment which involves a combination of two different medicines usually lasts for three to four months.

If you take these medicines properly, the risk of developing tuberculosis is vastly reduced.

Who gets vaccinated (BCG)?

Children in countries where the rates of tuberculosis are high are vaccinated against it shortly after they are born to protect them against the most serious forms and complications of tuberculosis.

Children in the Netherlands only receive this vaccination if they are under 12 and if one or both parents come from a country where tuberculosis is still rife.

Adults may sometimes be advised to have the vaccination if they are embarking on long spells abroad or going to high-risk places, for example if they are going to work in healthcare in a country where tuberculosis is rife.