Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) which affects the lungs. TB is spread from person to person through the air. When people with lung TB cough, sneeze or spit, the TB germs are propelled into the air and people inhaling it can become infected.

Key facts

  • TB is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide.
  • South Africa is one of the eight countries which account for two thirds of new TB cases.
  • In 2017, 10 million people contracted TB of which 1.6 million died from the disease, including 0.3 million people with HIV.
  • TB is the leading killer of HIV-positive people.
  • Multidrug-resistant TB is a problem – WHO estimates that there were 558 000 new cases with resistance to rifampicin (the most effective first-line drug).
  • Globally, incidences of TB is falling at approximately 2% per annum. To achieve the 2020 milestones of the End TB Strategy, the annual decline rate needs to be at 4-5%.


  • About 25% of the world’s population has latent TB, which means that these people have been infected by the TB bacteria but are not yet ill and, at this stage, cannot transmit the disease.
  • People infected with TB have a 5-15% lifetime risk of falling ill with TB. However, people with compromised immune systems (e.g. living with HIV, malnutrition, diabetes or smokers) have a significantly higher chance of falling ill.
  • When active TB is developed, the symptoms are often not felt for months which leads to delays in treatment and the spread of bacteria to others.
  • People with active TB can infect 10-15 other people on average.
  • All age groups are at risk but TB mostly affects adults in their productive years.

Symptoms and treatment

Common symptoms of TB include:

  • Sputum with blood
  • Chest pains
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats

Treatment typically takes place over 6 months and is supported by relevant information and supervision by a health worker. Adherence to the treatment provided is vital for recovery and preventing further spread.

An estimated 54 million lives have been saved through TB diagnosis and treatment between 2000 and 2017.

Despite progress, TB continues to kill thousands of South Africans and the Department of Health encourages people to:

  • Be aware of the symptoms
  • Visit clinics for testing and screening
  • If diagnosed with TB, remember to take your medication daily and not skip or stop treatment, even if you are feeling better.

The good news is that TB is treatable and curable!