Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by bacteria whose scientific name is Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It was first isolated in 1882 by a German physician named Robert Koch who received the Nobel prize for this discovery. TB most commonly affects the lungs but also can involve almost any organ of the body. Many years ago, this disease was referred to as “consumption” because without effective treatment, these patients often would waste away. Today, of course, tuberculosis usually can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
There is also a group of organisms referred to as atypical tuberculosis. These involve other types of bacteria that are in the Mycobacterium family. Often, these organisms do not cause disease and are referred to a “colonizers,” because they simply live alongside other bacteria in our bodies without causing damage. At times, these bacteria can cause an infection that is sometimes clinically like typical tuberculosis. When these atypical mycobacteria cause infection, they are often very difficult to cure. Often, drug therapy for these organisms must be administered for one and a half to two years and requires multiple medications.
How does a person get TB?
A person can become infected with tuberculosis bacteria when he or she inhales minute particles of infected sputum from the air. The bacteria get into the air when someone who has a tuberculosis lung infection coughs, sneezes, shouts, or spits (which is common in some cultures). People who are nearby can then possibly breathe the bacteria into their lungs. You don’t get TB by just touching the clothes or shaking the hands of someone who is infected. Tuberculosis is spread (transmitted) primarily from person to person by breathing infected air during close contact.
There is a form of atypical tuberculosis, however, that is transmitted by drinking unpasteurized milk. Related bacteria, called Mycobacterium bovis, cause this form of TB. Previously, this type of bacteria was a major cause of TB in children, but it rarely causes TB now since most milk is pasteurized (undergoes a heating process that kills the bacteria).
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