While diseases like Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) make headlines for causing fatal epidemics, the world’s deadliest infectious disease is something far more common, yet far less talked about: tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis, or TB, kills 1.6 million people every year — or 4,000 people a day. In fact, TB claims more lives annually than than malaria and HIV combined.

More than a quarter of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria, though not all will show signs of the illness as TB can remain dormant in a person’s body for years, or even the rest of their lives. Latent TB can only be detected with a skin or blood test.

Of the nearly 2 billion people around the world estimated to have latent TB, approximately 10 million of them will develop active TB every year.

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TB is caused by an airborne bacteria that spreads through tiny droplets released into the air when people with active TB infections cough, talk or sneeze. And though anyone can get TB, those with compromised immune systems — including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with immunocompromising conditions — are most at risk. TB is a leading killer among people with HIV.

The disease, which primarily affects the lungs, is serious and can be deadly, but both latent and active TB can typically be cured with a combination of drugs taken over six to nine months.

However, drug-resistant strains of TB are increasingly becoming a problem. Last year, approximately 500,000 cases of drug-resistant TB were reported around the world. People with drug-resistant TB do not respond to two or more of the medications most commonly used to treat the disease, and may have to take more than 15,000 pills over the course of their treatment. Still, many do not survive.

For nearly two decades, Johnson & Johnson has been working to combat drug-resistant TB. The company developed the first novel TB medicine in more than 40 years and is developing next-generation medicines that will help bring an end to TB.

Johnson & Johnson has not only been taking action to ensure this medication is available and affordable to those in need, but is also working to strengthen health care systems in countries with high incidences of TB by training health care workers, improving diagnostic capacity, and raising community awareness

TB — and, in particular, drug-resistant TB — is one of the greatest public health emergencies facing the world today, yet for too long, it has been overlooked and underfunded. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of ending TB by 2030, stronger health systems, more accurate diagnostics, better treatments, and, ultimately, an effective vaccine are crucial. When governments, companies, organizations, and ordinary people work together to make TB a priority, millions of TB cases and TB-related deaths can be prevented.


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What Is the World's Deadliest Infectious Disease?

By Daniele Selby