The increasing incidence of tuberculosis (TB) among healthcare workers has prompted the Health Ministry to issue a set of guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease in local healthcare facilities.

According to the guidelines, the number of healthcare workers (nurses, medical attendants and doctors) that are diagnosed with TB has increased from 106 in 2007 to 220 in 2010.

“The problem is that healthcare workers often do not think of TB, and they do not take precautions,” said Institute of Respiratory Medicine director Datuk Dr Abdul Razak Muttalif.

Healthcare workers face a higher risk of getting infected compared to the general population as they come into contact with patients with TB more often and for a longer duration.

However, as the most common symptom of TB cough is also common in many other diseases, many healthcare workers do not think of TB when they are treating patients with cough.

“The TB guidelines we have tells us that if a person coughs for more than two weeks, we should suspect TB. However, not many people are practicing it, ” Dr Abdul Razak said.

TB transmission can be easily prevented by asking patients who are coughing to wear a mask and avoid spitting in public places.

The disease is also curable if patients take a combination of at least three or four antibiotics for about six months.

“Unfortunately, many people still die from the disease because they come late,” Dr Abdul Razak said, adding that less than 15% of patients cough out phlegm with blood.

The new guidelines issued by the ministry involve advice on environmental controls, administrative controls (managerial) and the use of personal protective equipment like face masks to prevent the spread of TB.

Dr Abdul Razak said that hospital staff who are diagnosed with TB will be given a long medical leave until their sputum test (a lab test for TB) comes back negative.

“TB is curable, so there is no reason why anyone should be sacked from their jobs,” Dr Abdul Razak said.

“The idea is to catch them early, treat them effectively, and make sure that they do not spread the disease to other people,” he added.