Drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB): Am I at risk?

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Drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB): Am I at risk?

Question

I just read about the XDR-TB scare in the news. Should I be worried that I could catch it?

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Answer

Probably not. Extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), like other strains of tuberculosis (TB), is rather difficult to spread.

XDR-TB spreads like other forms of TB. Infected people release the bacteria that cause TB in the air by coughing, sneezing, talking, laughing or singing. The bacteria can float in the air for hours, but you need to be in close contact with an infected person for a prolonged period to risk becoming infected with TB. You are more likely to get TB from a close family member or co-worker — someone you spend a lot of time with — than from a stranger on a plane. Even if you are infected with TB, your immune system can attack the bacteria on its own. The infection could clear completely, or it may remain present without any symptoms.

Discovery of the suspected case of XDR-TB has alarmed public health officials because this strain of the disease doesn't respond to any of the first-line drugs doctors usually prescribe for TB. This means that doctors must resort to less effective medications, making recovery difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that only about 30 percent of XDR-TB-affected people can be cured.

Resistant strains of TB generally develop as a result of partial or incomplete treatment — either because people skip doses or don't finish their entire course of medication or because they're given an ineffective treatment regimen. This gives bacteria time to undergo mutations that can resist treatment with first-line TB drugs.

If you think you may have been exposed to someone with TB or XDR-TB, you should contact your doctor or local health department about getting a TB skin test and evaluation. The test, which involves the injection of a small amount of a substance called PPD tuberculin under the skin, will reveal if you are infected.

Last Updated: 07/09/2007
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