Should you be worried about tuberculosis in Singapore?

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Posted on: 24 Jan 2024

There has been a rising concern about tuberculosis (TB) cases in Singapore, as 28 cases of active TB cases have been reported by The Straits Times (2024). In response to this, the Ministry of Health conducted mass mandatory tuberculosis screening exercises in areas within Jalan Bukit Merah to identify undetected active cases and prevent further virus transmission.

Tuberculosis has been endemic in Singapore, and while active cases have been going down, there are still new cases every year. The prevalence of this disease increases with age, with 2% of those affected being 18 to 29 years old and 29% being those aged 70 to 79 years old.

As such, it’s important to be informed about the condition so you can take measures to minimise your risk of developing tuberculosis.

Here is all you need to know about tuberculosis, its symptoms, and how you can prevent the onset of active TB disease.

What is tuberculosis, and how does it occur?

Tuberculosis is a contagious bacterial infection (caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis) primarily affecting the lungs. It spreads through the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs or even sings. The tiny droplets with the specific bacteria are expelled into the air, increasing the risk of another individual breathing in the droplets. Should this droplet be inhaled, the bacteria will eventually enter and settle in their lungs. Once contracted, tuberculosis can lead to severe health complications, including respiratory issues, and, if left untreated, can be fatal.

This disease also spreads easily when crowds are gathered or in communities with crowded conditions. In addition, those with HIV/AIDS or a weakened immune system are more likely to catch tuberculosis compared to people with healthy immune systems.

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis?

When tuberculosis bacteria survive and multiply within the lungs, it is referred to as a TB infection. This condition progresses through three distinct stages, each characterised by different symptoms.

Primary TB Infection

In the initial stage, known as the primary infection, immune system cells actively locate and capture the tuberculosis bacteria. While the immune system may successfully eliminate some of the captured bacteria, others can persist and reproduce. Despite this ongoing activity, most individuals do not experience noticeable symptoms during the primary infection. However, some may exhibit flu-like symptoms such as a low-grade fever, tiredness, and a cough.

Latent TB Infection

Following the primary infection, the latent TB infection stage ensues. In this phase, immune system cells create a protective barrier around lung tissue containing TB bacteria. While the bacteria remain under control, they do not provoke any symptoms, and individuals with latent TB infection typically show no signs of illness.

Active TB Infection

Active TB disease happens when your immune system is unable to control the infection, allowing the bacteria to spread and cause disease throughout the lungs or other body parts. While active TB disease may manifest shortly after the primary infection, it often arises months or even years after a period of latent TB infection.

Symptoms of active TB disease in the lungs develop gradually over weeks and may include:

  • Excessive coughing
  • Coughing up blood or mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Pain during breathing or coughing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • General malaise

When TB infection extends beyond the lungs to other body parts, it is termed extrapulmonary tuberculosis. Symptoms depend on the affected body area and may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • General malaise
  • Pain near the infection site

What are the chances of developing tuberculosis from latent infection?

According to a spokesperson from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore, 10% of those with latent TB infection may develop active TB disease over their entire lifetime. However, the risk is highest in the first two years after being infected.

As such, undergoing health screenings and consultations is important to detect latent TB disease. That way, the healthcare professional can provide appropriate treatment options to help prevent the onset of active TB disease.

It’s also stated that those with latent TB infection who undergo treatment earlier have a 60% to 90% chance of preventing active TB disease from occurring.

How to prevent the spread and onset of tuberculosis

Carrying out proactive steps to prevent the onset of tuberculosis and even active TB disease is crucial for individual and community well-being. Consider the following preventive measures:

Vaccination

Make sure to have your toddler or infant vaccinated for the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine early on. It not only helps strengthen their immune system but also prevents the transmission of tuberculosis. To know more about this, parents should consult their child’s doctor in Singapore.

Additionally, vaccination is important if you plan to visit a different country. So, make sure to get travel medicine vaccines to boost your immune system when you travel and avoid spreading any foreign virus when you return.

Good respiratory hygiene

Practising good respiratory hygiene, such as covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, minimises the risk of airborne transmission. As such, maintaining these habits and encouraging them within the community is vital.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, supports a robust immune system. Additionally, adequate rest and stress management also promote overall health and disease prevention by keeping your immune system healthy.

Infection control measures

Individuals diagnosed with active TB should adhere to infection control measures, including staying at home during the initial treatment phase. This helps prevent the spread of the bacteria to others within the community.

Education and awareness

Promoting awareness about tuberculosis, its symptoms, and preventive measures is essential for managing and preventing the spread of the disease. Therefore, make sure to get information about tuberculosis from trusted sources and consult a trusted doctor from an international GP private clinic to help you.

Why are health screenings and consultations important?

In light of the recent cases and the potential for latent TB infection, health screenings and consultations play a crucial role in preventing the spread of tuberculosis within the community. Aside from early prevention of active TB disease, consider visiting a medical clinic to get screened and checked for tuberculosis and for your overall health.

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