STOCKTON — Tuberculosis was well-known in the 19th century. With nicknames like “the consumption” and “the white plague,” by the end of the 1800s, anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the urban U.S. population was estimated to have latent or active infections. Most people with active infections eventually died.
In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch identified the bacteria that caused the illness. Germ theory began to gain a following, and public health efforts to stop the spread of tuberculosis began to have an effect.
Fewer people caught the disease, and new treatments were developed.
But tuberculosis still exists, and anyone can catch it. While it’s curable now, even with treatment active TB can be a killer.
That’s why World Tuberculosis Day — commemorating the day in 1882 when Koch announced his discovery of the TB bacterium — was created. The purpose of the day is to educate the public about tuberculosis.
Last year, San Joaquin County confirmed 42 cases of active TB. While this was the lowest infection rate on record for the county, nine of those with active TB died.
“We can’t be complacent just because progression from infection to disease takes a little while,” said Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, assistant health officer for San Joaquin County. “TB is an old, persistent global plague. It’s important to remember that more than 2.4 billion people, about one third of the world’s people, are infected with TB.”
Tuberculosis is spread when someone with an active infection coughs, and those around them breathe in the bacteria. Some people who contract TB will never develop active disease, the county health department said. Others will progress to active illness quickly, while still others may have a slow-progressing form of the disease.
In San Joaquin County, the highest rates of infection are among people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, people older than age 65, and people with diabetes.
It’s estimated that as many as 42,000 people in the county may have contracted tuberculosis, San Joaquin County Public Health said — more than AT&T Park can hold during a Giants game. However, most of these people do not have active infections. Many may not even realize they’re infected.
The key to eliminating active TB in the county is expanded, targeted testing and treatment, officials said.
“People should know their TB status so that if they’re infected, they can be treated early, before they progress to the active form of TB,” Vaishampayan said.
The county credited its efforts to find and treat people recently infected with TB — including supporting them through treatment, which can take up to nine months — with halting infections before they become active. These efforts led to a 28-percent decrease in active cases between 2015 and 2016, officials said.
Without treatment, 5 to 10 percent of people infected with the TB bacterium will progress to active tuberculosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Medical professionals and community organizations play a critical role in eradicating tuberculosis.
“Working to eliminate TB is imperative to prevent more cases of TB within San Joaquin County and to improve the health of our community,” the county health department wrote in a press release. “To ensure that TB is truly eliminated in San Joaquin County, we can’t be passive.”