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  • Hannah Martin

The Rise of Tuberculosis Cases Amidst a Global Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic, which officially began in March 2020, has had an undeniable impact on the lives of citizens throughout the world. Disposable masks are still devotedly worn on public aircrafts or in hospitals, and approximately 70% of the world has received vaccinations to combat COVID-19. Millions grieve the loss of their loved ones to this infectious disease. COVID-19 became the primary concern of healthcare professionals, patients, and general citizens worldwide between the years of 2020 and 2022; it still remains a prominent cause of anxiety for many even after the Public Health Emergency declaration expired in May of 2023. As focus shifted and fixated on this one disease, other contagious infections and diseases were ignored, and in some instances, even rose in numbers. Tuberculosis, an illness that primarily affects the lungs, did exactly that.

There has been a sharp increase in active tuberculosis cases, not only in the United States, but globally.These cases rose prominently during the most obtrusive years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics show that tuberculosis cases declined dramatically in 2020, and then had a sudden uptick from 2020 to 2022. According to NBC News, 8,300 tuberculosis cases were reported in the United States in 2022, compared to 7,874 in 2021. Doctors consider this data to show delayed or missed diagnoses due to the global health situation of the time. Additionally, the actual number of tuberculosis tests performed declined, resulting in a total lesser number of tuberculosis cases caught and treated. Since medical professionals were not testing for tuberculosis, it was impossible for the appropriate diagnosis to be given. The lack of adequate recognition and care led to the significant issue of latent tuberculosis cases transforming into active ones.

Latent tuberculosis can oftentimes go unnoticed due to its lack of symptoms. However, if left untreated, it can progress and develop into active tuberculosis. Once active, tuberculosis can cause symptoms that impact the lungs, including coughing, chest pain, chills, and fatigue. Additionally, active tuberculosis is contagious, whereas latent tuberculosis is not. Doctors have attributed a recent increase in active tuberculosis due to latent tuberculosis cases flying under the radar during the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growing occurrence of tuberculosis illuminates an ongoing health disparity, specifically within the United States. Immigrant communities are at greater risk for active tuberculosis, as 71% of all active tuberculosis cases within the United States are among those who were born outside of the country. Additionally, Asian-Americans are significantly more at risk cases rising by 62% in this community from 2021 to 2022

Rising tuberculosis cases also call attention to healthcare disparities in regards to wealth and class. Medicare and Medicaid insurance plans currently do not cover tuberculosis tests. The majority of Medicare and Medicaid recipients are elderly, disabled, or are beneath a specified income level. Although doctors recommend those who are at-risk for tuberculosis to be tested, it is inaccessible for those who belong to these communities. Additionally, homeless shelters and correctional facilities are also prominent areas for tuberculosis to spread amongst populations. This is largely attributed to close proximity in these amenities.

The majority of the blame for rising tuberculosis cases has been placed on the COVID19 pandemic. However, it is also possible that actions taken during the pandemic lessened the spread of the disease. Individuals were encouraged to quarantine and isolate themselves from others to reduce the spread of coronavirus. This strategy limited the spread of other infectious diseases simultaneously, and this includes tuberculosis. Some have determined that this data is showcased in the statistics from 2020, which shows a slight decrease in tuberculosis cases. Although this may initially seem like a positive result from the COVID19 pandemic, these statistics only refer to the lack of spreading active tuberculosis. Unfortunately, the true impact COVID19 had on the rise of tuberculosis cases globally can still be showcased through latent infections progressing to active infections, which is not prevented through isolation.

The United States has suffered from a rising number of tuberculosis cases, but so too has the rest of the world. Tuberculosis deaths worldwide have risen for the first time in decades. In 2022, there were 1.6 million deaths attributed to tuberculosis infection. In comparison, 1.4 million people died from the disease in 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) blames reduction in resources and inability to diagnose tuberculosis throughout the pandemic for this alarming observation. Funding has posed a challenge due to the pandemic, especially in low and middle-income countries which account for the majority of worldwide tuberculosis cases.

Although the sudden uptick has raised concerns for many in the healthcare sphere, professionals are confident in the possibility to completely eliminate tuberculosis within this lifetime. Tuberculosis cases, although rising, have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels, and will likely decrease in the coming years. In the healthcare field, an uptick in tuberculosis cases is largely considered an additional blip caused by the life-altering and dramatic era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of the optimism expressed by professionals, it is clear that the rise in tuberculosis cases and subsequent deaths have alarmed the health community. As displayed by the rapid spread of COVID-19, infectious diseases must be considered serious threats to the international community. Prior to the pandemic, tuberculosis was the deadliest infectious disease; it has now regained this unfortunate title. Although the rising tuberculosis cases are likely a manageable obstacle, it reminds healthcare workers and patients of the importance of being proactive about personal and public health.


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