Tuberculosis is one of the most common infectious diseases in developing countries, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It infects nearly 10 million people each year and kills nearly two million. The World Health Organization aims to eradicate the disease by the year 2015.
One thing health experts agree on is that TB can be defeated. Dr. Lee Reichman founded the Global Tuberculosis Institute at the New Jersey Medical School, and he says, "TB is treatable and preventable."
When people with infectious TB cough, sneeze or even talk, they propel TB bacteria into the air. An uninfected person can catch tuberculosis from inhaling a small amount of the germs. "TB spreads wherever people are close together and they share air for a considerable length of time," says Reichman.
In rich and poor countries alike, it is a disease that is stigmatized. TB often co-exists with HIV/AIDS. The problem is, in poor countries, getting treatment for TB can be difficult. There are too few clinics and getting to them is often a test of endurance.
South African TV personality Gerry Elsdon is her country's ambassador for TB as well as a spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross. Nine years ago, Elsdon discovered she had non-infectious TB. She says the initial reaction from friends and viewers was compassion.
"What came afterwards was the big surprise," says Elsdon. "I thought I was doing a great service and duty to so many South Africans, who perhaps have not been able to have a voice because they had TB, that have been silent and hidden because of their TB status. And initially, I experienced a little bit of discrimination."
Elsdon is working to remove the stigma from TB. "This illness knows no borders," she says. "It does not discriminate. It knows no creed and it certainly is not a disease of the poor."
Medical experts and activists alike say the solution lies in education ... educating governments, rich and poor, educating citizens to control the spread of infection. If that isn't done, experts say, we will face more deadly strains of TB and it could become a pandemic.