You won’t get tuberculosis while riding the subway or from the local diner. There are only about 300 cases diagnosed in Toronto every year, so your chances of catching it are slim. But for the unfortunate residents who are infected, recovery can be a long and emotional journey.
So warns a new photo exhibit at City Hall.
With photos and captions, the exhibit tells the story Toronto residents who have been infected by tuberculosis and the stigma they felt while being treated.
The exhibit is a part of the cities efforts to mark World TB Day, a global effort to raise public awareness around tuberculosis. It is held every March 24, the day in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch announced he had discovered the cause of TB, the mycobacterium tuberculosis.
World’s deadliest disease
According to the World Health Organization, about 10 million people are infected by tuberculosis globally every year. Of those about 1.5 million die, making it the most deadly infectious disease on the planet.
Everybody avoids you. The stigma, the isolation, it’s like you’re a castaway.
—Rex (TB display at City Hall)
Tuberculosis had mostly disappeared from North America by the 1950s. But around 1985, TB began to make a comeback on this continent.
This has been attributed to the emergence of HIV which weakens the immune system, making a patient more susceptible to TB. Every year in Canada there are around 1,600 diagnosed cases, 300 of those in Toronto, according to Toronto Public Health.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Rea of Toronto Public Health, tuberculosis is a serious bacterial infection that mostly infects the lungs. But it can also infect other parts of the body. It is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
But it is not very infectious, Rea pointed out. “It’s not something that you get from kind of casual contact. You don’t catch it from sharing plates of food or toilet seats.”
It requires prolonged contact with someone who is infected for it to spread. “Most times it’s the people we live with, it’s our families that are most at risk,” Rea said.
Most don’t feel sick
About 90 per cent of those infected with tuberculosis do not experience any symptoms. The infection is in the body but it is dormant, and the only way to find out if you have it is to get a skin test.
This is what is referred to as latent TB. Most people with latent TB will never get sick.
But in about 10 per cent of cases the bacteria starts to grow and make the patient ill. Symptoms of active TB are similar to those for pneumonia, including a severe cough, fever and night sweats. Sometimes sufferers cough up blood.
In more severe cases, the infection causes fatigue, weight loss and muscle weakness.
“But everything about tuberculosis is slow. So even if you do get sick, it’s usually months or years after you originally got infected,” Rea said.
TB can be diagnosed by chest x-rays or a sputum samples, where the patient coughs onto a jar which then gets examined under a microscope.
Once detected it is easy to treat. Both active and latent TB can be treated with the same antibiotic. Depending on the treatment chosen, the medication will have to be taken daily from 4 to 12 months.
Despite the fact that tuberculosis is rare in Canada and easily treatable, there remains a social stigma surrounding the disease.
Dr. Rea says this is because “a lot of the family stories that we have about TB, whether it is from a long time ago in Canada, or more recently in parts of the world where the health care system might not be so good … are about TB as a terrible awful disease that people die from or they get sent away to a sanatorium for five years and they never come home.”
This gives the impression that TB, and infected patients are something to be scared of.
But as she points out it is a very different situation in a country with a good healthcare system.
The city is marking March 24 by turning the CN Tower and the Toronto sign at city hall red on Friday night. Toronto Public Health is also be hosting a Toronto TB flash mob.