Cases of tuberculosis (TB) are on the rise, data show, as officials warn people not to mistake symptoms of the infection for Covid-19.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the decline in TB up to 2019 appeared to have been reversed, with cases increasing by 2.4 per cent in England – up from 4,615 in 2018 to 4,725 in 2019.
While TB cases fell in 2020, most likely due to people staying away from the NHS during the pandemic, suggestions are that infections rose by more than seven per cent in 2021.
Anyone with a persistent cough and fever, particularly those in groups at a higher risk of catching TB, are being urged not to dismiss their symptoms as coronavirus.
TB is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person. It can be life-threatening, but most cases can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
More TB infections resistant to drugs
In 2020, there were more cases of drug-resistant TB than any year since records began, the UKHSA said – with 1.6 per cent of cases resistant to any drug and 2.4 per cent multi-drug resistant, compared to 1.8 per cent in 2019.
Symptoms of TB include a persistent cough that lasts more than three weeks, breathlessness, lack of appetite, weight loss and a high temperature.
The infection mainly affects the lungs but it can damage other parts of the body, including the abdomen, glands, bones and nervous system.
People are at a higher risk of catching TB if they are in close contact with a person known to have the disease, migrate from countries with high rates of TB, are homeless, addicted to drugs, have a weakened immune system or are in prison.
Increase in undetected TB cases
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA, said: “TB is curable and preventable and now is the time to get our elimination efforts back on track.
“Despite significant progress towards elimination in recent years, tuberculosis remains a serious public health issue in the UK.
“With treatment, most people will make a full recovery, but delayed diagnosis and treatment, particularly during the pandemic, will have increased the number of undetected TB cases in the country.
“It is important to remember that not every persistent cough, along with a fever, is Covid-19. A cough that usually has mucus and lasts longer than three weeks can be caused by a range of other issues, including TB.
“Tuberculosis develops slowly, and it may take several weeks, months or even years after you were infected before you notice you’re unwell.
“Contact your GP if you think you could be at risk so you can get tested and treated.”