Why Are We Still Talking About Tuberculosis?


In 2024, when you hear the word “tuberculosis” you might think it sounds old fashioned or like something you learn about in history class but is no longer relevant to life in the 21st century. 

In reality, TB is the #2 infectious killer in the world today and at Public Health, we actively work to prevent the spread of this disease through case investigation every day. So, what does that look like? We’ll walk you through it step-by-step.

What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious infection caused by bacteria. It usually attacks the lungs but can attack any part of the body. TB spreads through the air from one person to another. When a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs, speaks, or sings, the bacteria can get into the air and people nearby may breathe in the bacteria and become infected.

When this happens, the bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow. 

Latent TB means you have been infected with TB bacteria, but your immune system is fighting the bacteria to keep you from getting sick with TB disease.  TB disease means your immune system can't fight the TB bacteria you have been infected with.

There are five key steps in a tuberculosis contact investigation.

Case Identification

The first step is identifying a case. TB is considered a “reportable” disease. A reportable disease is defined as a disease of public interest based on contagiousness, severity, or frequency. This means when a case of TB is diagnosed by a healthcare provider, they will report it to us, so that we can take the appropriate steps to prevent the further spread of disease. 

Contact Tracing

The second step involves putting together a list of close contacts. We work with the person to trace their steps and identify everyone they may have been in contact with while they were infectious. The infectious period starts three months before symptoms begin. In the case of TB, we don’t generally look at more incidental contacts (like walking by someone in a supermarket), but rather people like family members, friends, co-workers, or anyone who spent a significant amount of time with the person who has TB. We usually contact people who have been exposed by mail or phone.


The third step is testing people at risk. If you have risk factors for TB, you may be able to get a test from us. There are also other options for getting tested. We can work with a person’s provider to coordinate testing at their office. We test people for TB using a blood test. Results are mailed to you, typically within 1-2 weeks. If your test is positive, you may need further testing to find out if you have active TB disease.


The next step is getting treatment from a healthcare provider. They will likely prescribe a combination of antibacterial medications over the course of several months. You must take every dose, as instructed by your doctor. This is important for killing the bacteria in your body. 


Finally, healthcare providers will follow-up to make sure you completed treatment. To prevent the spread of this contagious disease, it is crucial that each of these steps is followed. Throughout the treatment process, expect to hear from your healthcare provider to check on your progress.

This content is free for use with credit to Public Health Madison & Dane County .

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