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Boston Medical Center tackling tuberculosis with $21 million grant

Clinicians hope to detect potential tuberculosis infections earlier.
A paramedic checks the blood pressure of a man with suspected Tuberculosis in IndonesReuters

It’s a painful infection. You struggle to breath. You cough, relentlessly, and sometimes you choke on your own blood.

Though tuberculosis has been nearly eliminated in the United States, doctors at Boston Medical Center are embarking on a seven-year, $21 million research study from the National Institutes of Health to help identify new biomarkers to help diagnose and treat the sometimes fatal illness, which last year infected 9 million people worldwide.

They also will investigate if some people have an immunity to TB that enables them to carry the disease without showing symptoms.

Active tuberculosis is brought on by an inactive bacteria, which is present in 3 billion people – or about one third of the world’s population. Those people are at risk for developing the dreadful symptoms of active tuberculosis, according to Dr. Jerrold Ellner , Chief of Infectious Diseases at Boston Medical Center.

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Only about one in 10 of those who carry inactive tuberculosis will become ill, Ellner said, but in poverty-stricken, densely populated countries like China and India where the infection runs rampant, that fraction has potentially devastating consequences.

“People should be aware that it is a tremendous health problem in most of the world,” said Ellner , the study's chief investigator. “As long as people are traveling between countries, there is a risk of them taking it back into their own country.”

In 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health confirmed 201 cases of active tuberculosis in the Bay State, a 65 percent drop from 2012. State health officials have not supplied tuberculosis data for 2014.

According to Ellner , poverty is also a significant risk factor.

“It is a vicious cycle,” said Ellner . “During periods of poverty, there is more TB. People get sick, they can’t work, and it makes them poorer.”

Tuberculosis at a glance:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a total of 9,582 TB cases were reported in the United States in 2013. Both the number of TB cases reported and the case rate decreased; this represents a 3.6% and 4.3% decline, respectively, compared to 2012.*

Since a resurgence that peaked in 1992, reported TB cases int he U.S. have declined.

In 2013, 65% of reported TB cases in the U.S. occurred among foreign-born persons.

TB killed 536 people in the U.S. in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That's a 69% drop since 1992.

 
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