WANDSWORTH could face a rise in cases of tuberculosis unless people are made more aware of the symptoms of the disease, public health experts have warned.

The warning came as London health chiefs announced the return of TB screening vans to the streets of the capital for the first time in fifty years.

Almost half of Britain’s 7,000 annual cases of tuberculosis occur in London.

Though the number of cases in the borough is still relatively low with 77 cases reported in 2003, it is the rate at which they have increased that concerns doctors such as Dr Charlotte Rayner, who runs a specialist TB unit at St George’s Hospital.

In 1999 there were only 55 cases of TB reported in the borough.

“While the number of cases may seem small, we urgently need to open people’s eyes to the risks and symptoms of this disease,” says Dr Rayner.

“Left unchecked the disease could very easily spread.

“Part of the problem is that the symptoms of tuberculosis are often confused with other diseases, such as asthma, or ignored altogether. When that happens, it only increases the risk of other people becoming infected.”

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease, the symptoms of which include a persistent cough, fever and weight loss.

Like the common cold, tuberculosis is contagious and is spread through the air.

When people infected with the disease cough, sneeze, talk or spit, they propel TB germs, known as bacilli, into the air which can remain suspended there for up to five hours.

Nearly all children are given a vaccination against TB called the BCG jab, either in the first few weeks of birth or when they reach twelve years of age. Though the vaccination only lasts 15 years, TB can be completely cured with a six-month course of antibiotics.

Hundreds of years ago, TB was the scourge of London and was known to cause one in five deaths in the capital. Centuries later, an estimated one third of the world’s population is infected with TB and, as Dr Rayner explains, there is still the persistent belief that the disease is linked to poverty and hygiene:

“There is an age-old stigma associated with tuberculosis,” continues Dr Rayner, “which we fear may prevent people from coming forward for treatment.”

“Centuries ago tuberculosis was seen as disease caught only by the poor and unfortunately that myth continues to this day.”

“The truth of the matter is that your social standing will do nothing to protect you against tuberculosis. Anyone who comes into contact with TB can potentially contract the disease but there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if that happens.

“Anyone with symptoms that match those of the disease should seek medical help,” she adds.

St George’s Hospital runs a specialist TB unit which last year saw 186 patients.

The service provides a daily rapid access and assessment clinic for patients suspected of having TB, monitoring for patients on treatment, BCG vaccinations and a tracing service to assess individuals who may have come into contact with the disease.

For more information about tuberculosis, visit www.hpa.org.uk/infections.