World Tuberculosis Day calls attention to threat of workplace contagion

March 24, 2014 is World Tuberculosis Day. The slogan this year is “Reach the 3 million.”

Every year, approximately 9 million people are afflicted by this infectious disease. Of those, 3 million are “missed” by health systems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 450,000 people were infected with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in 2012.

World TB Day was created as an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease, its status around the globe, and prevention and control efforts. TB transmission is a recognized risk to patients and healthcare workers as well as those who visit TB at-risk areas.

Tuberculosis is a potentially life-threatening infectious disease that spreads from person to person through the air. It is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis and usually attacks the lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TB is the second most common cause of death from infectious disease in the world behind human-immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

Infectious disease risks in the workplace are an ongoing concern. One exposure to a contagious disease can quickly multiply. For example, an employee traveling abroad on business may be exposed to TB but unaware of being contagious. Upon boarding a plane for home, the traveling worker has the potential to infect other passengers, who in turn have the potential to spread the disease to others. Moreover, the worker could continue to pass it to others after returning to work and going about every day as usual.

In the United States, the number of TB cases has declined since the worldwide resurgence of the disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is attributed to increased implementation controls and heightened awareness. The CDC have made a substantial impact on this disease with multiple guidelines and increased awareness of how to reduce the spread of this disease. This year, the CDC selected the theme “Find TB. Treat TB. Working together to eliminate TB to highlight that TB is still a life-threatening problem in the United States, despite the declining number of cases.

The goal of all workplaces should be to keep workers safe and healthy. Maintaining recommended controls, wearing proper respiratory protection, having diagnostic testing available, and implementing an infection control plan all assist in reducing the spread of disease.    

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