Dr Pradeep Mahajan, Regenerative Medicine Researcher
by Priya J
While the Govt. of India has been working towards eradication of tuberculosis (TB) in the country (as per the National Strategic Plan 2017-2025), the COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball in the past year and disrupted several activities. Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the oldest and serious illnesses known to mankind and India belongs to the “high TB burden” category.
The efforts taken by our central and state governments to continue providing essential treatment to TB patients at home during the pandemic is commendable. This was especially important because both pulmonary TB and COVID-19 primarily affect the lungs. Moreover, such individuals are usually in an immunocompromised state. Interrupting treatment would have spelt disaster in several cases, especially if the patient were to be infected by the coronavirus. While there is no direct link between increased risk and severity of COVID-19 in patients with pre-existing TB, such patients do tend to have poorer outcomes following COVID-19 infection.
At this moment though, as the COVID-19 vaccination drive has commenced in the country, it is essential to create awareness among TB patients (as well as those with other health conditions) to get vaccinated as early as possible. The purpose of the COVID-19 vaccination is to prime our immune systems to tackle subsequent coronavirus infection (if acquired). There is fear in the minds of some people regarding side effects of the vaccine, or that vaccination will worsen their pre-existing health condition. It is important to understand that the vaccines do not contain active virus or any other organism that will cause disease or worsen health conditions. Moreover, vaccines do not change the genetic makeup of a person. Misinformation can be dangerous; therefore, it is important to consult healthcare professionals to get any doubts clarified.
Our immune system is naturally capable of fighting infections; however, when the disease load becomes high (due to the highly infective nature of the pathogen, as seen in this pandemic), the body needs some support to tackle the offending agent. In context of TB specifically, the bacteria that causes the disease establishes infection in the lungs and gradually kills the cells responsible for breathing. Moreover, whatever healing occurs is by fibrotic scarring, which is a permanent damage. The COVID-19 virus also affects the lung cells. Imagine a situation where both infections overpower the natural immune responses and lead to complications. By this, we mean that the lung compliance would be compromised and the capacity of the individual to breath normally would also reduce.
The much required added protection is offered by vaccines, which are only designed to stimulate the immune system to produce higher amount of antibodies (molecules that fight infection), than that generated by the natural immune response. When two or more doses of a vaccination are advised, it is to ensure a long-term immune response and minimize the severity and complications arising from the infection.
Thus, patients with TB (as well as those with other health conditions) should take the COVID-19 vaccination without fear, of course after consulting with their respective physicians. Having said that, while waiting for their turn to be vaccinated, TB patients should follow all recommended precautions of social distancing, isolation (where required), wearing a mask, maintaining hygiene, etc. It is always better to be safe when possible than be sorry at a later stage!