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First Global Estimate Reveals 1.8 Million Young Adults Develop TB Annually

The first global estimate of tuberculosis (TB) rates among young people find that about 1.8 million individuals in this age group develop the disease each year.

One of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, tuberculosis (TB) continues to be a public health issue. Although it is known that the risk for TB increases during adolescence, the scale of TB burden in this population has remained unknown.

Until now.

The first global estimate of TB rates among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 has been published in the European Respiratory Journal. Researchers estimate that 1.8 million individuals in this age bracket develop TB each year with young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 at greatest risk.

Prior to this research, individuals up to 14 years of age were often grouped as children and those 15 years of age and older were grouped as adults. This grouping resulted in a knowledge gap, leaving the understanding of TB burden among young adults limited.

“We know from previous studies that TB risk gets higher during adolescence and that young people have unique needs during treatment for TB, but until now there have been no estimates of the total number of adolescents who develop TB,” lead researcher Kathryn Snow, PhD, from the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, commented in a press release.

She went on to stress that adolescence is a critical time period within an individual’s life, a transitive period where individuals are often graduating from high school, segueing into their careers, and even starting families with their significant others. Therefore, TB infection could have severe long-term implications.

In order to come up with an estimate for this age group, researchers looked at data collected from 2 sources: The World Health Organization’s Global TB database for 2012, and TB surveillance statistics from several countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Romania, and Estonia. “These countries provided a representative global spread of TB epidemics of different types and severity,” according to the press release.

The researchers separated the data into 3 age groups: 10 to 14, 15 to 19, and 20 to 24. They found that TB impacted those in the 3rd age bracket—20 to 24-year-olds—the most in 2012. It is estimated that 1.05 million individuals in this age group developed TB that year. This age bracket was followed by those between 15 and 19 years of age (535,000 were estimated to have developed TB), and then those 10 to 14 years of age (192,000). The researchers stressed that these numbers are only estimates and postulate that the actual number of infections is much higher.

That raises the big question: Why does TB risk rise in adolescence?

“We think that [it’s] due to a mix of biological and social factors,” Dr. Snow is quoted as saying in the press release. “Young adults aged 20 to 24 years are more likely to develop infectious TB than younger adolescents. This means young adults are more likely to come into contact with infectious TB through contact with friends and classmates of the same age, while young adolescents have less contact with young adults.”

She added now that more is known about the “scale of the problem” in this population, next steps include efforts to better understand ways to target prevention efforts to young adults living in countries dealing with TB epidemics, such as South Asia and Africa.

“The scale of the TB burden requires significant investment in communication to remove the stigma of diagnosis and to prevent delayed diagnosis,” head of the European Respiratory Society’s Respiratory Infections Assembly, professor Graham Bothamley, PhD, said in the press release. “We must also work on developing different ways of delivering treatment, so that the impact on patients’ work lives can be reduced.”