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Tuberculosis is the infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (or, less commonly, Mycobacterium bovis). It is responsible for 3% of all deaths globally, mainly in the developing world.[1] As of 2018 it remains the leading cause of death from infectious disease. Since the early 1980s there has been a resurgence in the West associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There are several different types of clinical infection.

Revised guidelines on the management and prevention of TB were published by NICE on 22 March 2006.[2] According to the NICE website:

"The NICE tuberculosis clinical guideline covers:
  • "diagnosing and treating active and latent TB in adults and children
  • "preventing the spread of TB, for example by offering tests to people at high risk, and by vaccination
"The guideline does not explain TB or its treatments in detail."

These are to be the new "bible", and should replace the BTS guidelines.

Until there is more content at GANFYD, there are some good external links below.


Bovine tuberculosis

See Bovine tuberculosis article.



  • Influenced by natural resistance patterns in human populations, sanitation, nutrition and other disease such as AIDS.


Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or "MTB".

Natural history of tuberculosis infection

Exposure to tuberculosis may (or may not) lead to infection. An individual's susceptibility iis - to some extent - affected by their general health and nutrition, as well as by their immune status. (Cell mediated immunity is required to prevent or combat TB infection.)

If an individual is exposed to TB, their immune system may successfully kill the pathogen before it becomes established in the body

If the immune system fails to do this, the organism may invade the tissues. If the immune system is unable to clear it, it may still be able to keep it in check, so that it causes no symptoms - this is known as latent TB infection (LTBI). Screening and contact tracing processes aim to identify and treat cases of LTBI, before they progress to active disease.

LTBI may be diagnosed and successfully treated; or it may persist for months or even for many years before clearing, being treated, or progressing to cause symptomatic, active disease.


Caseous Necrosis


Caution as it is a systemic disease not just a respiratory disease and presentations can range from meningitis to bowel symptoms. Classically:

  • Night sweats
  • Chronic cough
  • Weight loss
  • Malaise



  • Fever
  • Pallor
  • Cachexia
  • Lymphadenopathy
  • Upper lobe crackles


Sputum testing

The initial test for tuberculosis is often sputum testing. Ideally several early morning samples of sputum are sent, as the bacteria may be scanty, and not seen in all samples. Presence of Mycobacteria in sputum indicates that a patient is more likely to be infectious to others - and the likelihood is increased if large quantities of bacteria are seen.

LogoKeyPointsBox.png"Sputum smear positive tuberculosis" is the infectious sort and requires contact tracing and action
Ziehl-Neelsen staining showing acid-fast bacilli.

Mycobacteria are fairly large non-motile rod-shaped bacteria (bacilli), which can be stained with a pink dye and, once stained, the stain is not easily removed by acids or by alkalis - it is said to be "acid and alkali-fast". Mycobacteria are bacilli, so they are often described, on microscopy, as "acid and alkali fast bacilli" (AAFBs).

If sputum cannot be obtained directly, or if AAFBs are not found, sometimes samples are aspirated at bronchoscopy; these may be more likely to detect the bacteria in infected individuals (although if AAFBs cannot be identified in ordinary sputum samples but only in bronchoscopy aspirates, the individual is probably less likely to be infectious to others - at least at that time.)

Blood tests

Various tests based on recognition of mycobacterial DNA are now available. These interferon-gamma release assays have the advantage of being blood tests, and may also be able to distinguish MTB from BCG and some other mycobacteria.


While the chest X-ray can be essentially diagnostic in the patient context, the relative rarity of tuberculosis in say elderly smokers of European stock can make the radiological diagnosis, including with CT chest imaging relatively easy to confuse with a tumour.

Tuberculin skin tests

A tuberculin skin test (TST) work by introducing tuberculin, a protein derived from mycobacteria, into the skin. Somebody with prior immunity to mycobacteria will produce a response to test, and a vigorous response may indicate current infection with a mycobacterium, most likely (in the UK) MTB.

In 2005 the UK changed from the Heaf test to the Mantoux test - the main test used internationally - for routine screening. This (like BCG) has to be given as an intradermal injection, which requires skill, and has to be read after 48-72 hours (up to 96 hours may be acceptable) - but certainly less than a week.


QuotationMarkLeft.png No charge shall be made and recovered under this regulation from a patient who is accepted by the person supplying the drug as suffering from tuberculosis in respect of any drug supplied to that patient for the treatment of tuberculosis QuotationMarkRight.pngDH

  • Based around monitored triple chemotherapy (see guidelines)
  • Vaccines are in development that may stop progression of already acquired disease


  • The disease can be prevented by vaccination with BCG vaccine. However it does not prevent progression of disease already acquired. Other vaccines are in development.
  • Occupational health policies to prevent people with active TB from working with vulnerable people
  • Contact tracing of cases plays a major part.
  • Public health interventions with institutional care (eg prisons)
  • Screening high risk populations

BCG vaccine

Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (often referred to in French as Bacille Calmette-Guérin, as it was developed by two French microbiologists, Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin) a live attenuated bacterial vaccine - a strain of M bovis.

BCG is far less effective than other vaccines in routine use in the UK; but nevertheless effective at preventing the more serious presentations of TB (miliary TB; TB meningitis) in children, and in preventing leprosy. All children were routinely offered BCG vaccination as teenagers in the UK, until 2005; however, routine vaccination of all children has not been cost-effective for many years, as transmission between UK residents of UK origin had fallen to an all-time low. Vaccination of individuals in high risk groups continues.[4]

See the Green Book for further information on the use of BCG in the UK, or Wikipedia for a broader overview.

Why has universal BCG vaccination been stopped?

People do find this puzzling, especially when they hear that TB rates are rising. The reasons are as follows:[5] [6]

  • TB rates in the "indigenous" population are at an all time low, and still falling.
  • TB rates are increasing - but that's because of immigration, with people coming to the UK from high-prevalence countries.
  • People are considered to be at high(er) risk if they have a parent or grandparent from a high prevalence country; these people, if under the age of 16, should be offered BCG vaccination as early as possible in their life. They are offered the vaccine because they are at increased risk; and they are at increased risk because they are more likely to have infected relatives come to stay (or already living with them), or to make prolonged visits to countries with high prevalence rates.
  • There is very little spread from higher-risk to lower risk groups in the UK.
  • GPs and their staff can - and in some cases do - give BCG; but usually this is done through contracting a service from a particular GP practice, for a wider area. This is because giving an intra-dermal injection is slightly unusual and getting it sub-cutaneous may form an abscess.

BCG vaccine probably doesn't contribute much to herd immunity in the normal way. It's quite good at preventing the more serious forms of TB (TB meningitis and miliary TB) in infants and small children, but not terribly good at preventing pulmonary TB (the only form that's likely to be infectious); and in any case, the R value for TB is low: it's not very infectious, requiring close, prolonged contact. It's also a disease where host factors are very important: well-nourished, otherwise healthy people are much less likely to become ill than others.

People ("indigenous or otherwise") who are significantly exposed will also be followed up, although this will usually involve testing for infection, and in a few cases prophylactic treatment with antimicrobials, rather than BCG.

If BCG was a better vaccine, it might be worth offering universal vaccination against TB; but it's not a very good vaccine, and would never be introduced now, given the adverse reactions it causes.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are working hard to develop a good modern TB vaccine - if they succeed, then perhaps the policy should be changed; in the mean time, the current compromise is probably extremely sensible.

Other vaccines

  • M72/AS01E is an example of a vaccine directed at particular mycobacteria proteins that may prevent progression of disease in most immunocompetent adults[7].

Occupational health pre-employment screening for TB

It is recommended that healthcare workers and others at increased risk of acquiring or transmitting TB are assessed prior to starting work.

Healthcare workers are at increased risk of acquiring the disease from their patients. They are also more likely to be in contact with vulnerable (e.g. immune-suppressed) patients. Guidance therefore recommends that all healthcare workers are assessed prior to having contact with patients. [8]

This is an occupational health responsibility - the responsibility of their employer (or, if they have not yet started work, their prospective employer).

For students training to be healthcare workers it is the responsibility of the university or college to provide this assessment and (where indicated) vaccination. The issues are similar to those that apply to blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B.

For more information specifically about medical and dental students, see Screening and vaccination before starting at medical school.

New entrant screening

People entering the UK (and some other countries[9]) may be offered screening for active or latent TB infection.

PHE, TB Alert, and NHS England have produced a "toolkit" for this.[10]

Following up contacts

Contacts will be traced and treated as appropriate. The process starts with a risk assessment of the case: contact tracing is not necessary for non-infectious cases, unless it is to try to identify the source of the disease in the case. Where the case is thought to have been infectious, efforts will be made to trace and follow-up close contacts who meet criteria that suggests that they are at risk of TB, with a view to identifying and treating those that have latent TB infection (LTBI), and advising others - and their doctors - that they may be at increased risk, so that appropriate diagnosis and treatment is not delayed if they develop symptoms. Follow-up may involve: checking for a history of BCG vaccination; skin (Mantoux) testing, chest X-ray, and/or interferon gamma release assay (IGRA) testing.[11]

If cases are identified amongst very close contacts, a wider set of contacts will be screened, and so on: this is known as the "stone in the pond" (or "ripples in the pond") principle.


Tuberculosis should be notified on suspicion, and regardless of whether the diagnosis is made in a living case, post-mortem, in order to ensure that necessary control measures (such as contact-tracing) can be undertaken.

ICD code


External links


  1. In 2000, out of 55.69 million deaths, 1.66 million were owing to TB—J.C.E. Underwood. General and Systematic Pathology. 4th Edition.
  2. Clinical diagnosis and management of tuberculosis, and measures for its prevention and control. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 22 March 2006.
  3. Forlanini C. A contribution to the surgical therapy of phthisis. Ablation of the lung?. Artifical pneumothorax? Gazetta degli Ospedali & delle Cliniche di Milano 1882;3(68):537-705
  4. Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nursing Officer, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer. Changes to the BCG vaccination programme (PL/CMO/2005/3, PL/CNO/2005/3, PL/CPhO/2005/3). London: Department of Health, 2005:1-5. (Also available from DH website)
  5. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). BCG Statement. London: Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, 2007
  6. Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nursing Officer, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer. Changes to the BCG vaccination programme (PL/CMO/2005/3, PL/CNO/2005/3, PL/CPhO/2005/3). London: Department of Health, 2005:1-5. (Also available from DH website)
  7. Van Der Meeren O, Hatherill M, Nduba V, Wilkinson RJ, Muyoyeta M, Van Brakel E, Ayles HM, Henostroza G, Thienemann F, Scriba TJ, Diacon A, Blatner GL, Demoitié MA, Tameris M, Malahleha M, Innes JC, Hellström E, Martinson N, Singh T, Akite EJ, Khatoon Azam A, Bollaerts A, Ginsberg AM, Evans TG, Gillard P, Tait DR. Phase 2b Controlled Trial of M72/AS01E Vaccine to Prevent Tuberculosis. N Engl J Med. 2018 Sep 25. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1803484
  8. Department of Health/Health Protection Division/General Health Protection. Health clearance for tuberculosis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV: New healthcare workers. London: Department of Health, 2007.
  9. Blumberg HM, Ernst JD. The Challenge of Latent TB Infection. JAMA. 2016 Sep 6; 316(9):931-3.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  10. TB Alert, Public Health England, NHS England. Access, testing and treatment: A toolkit for new entrant latent tuberculosis programmes: TB Alert, Public Health England, & NHS England, 2016
  11. Clinical diagnosis and management of tuberculosis, and measures for its prevention and control. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 22 March 2006.