The risk of transmission of Mycobacterium tuberculosis from patients to health-care workers (HCWs) is a neglected problem in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Most health-care facilities in these countries lack resources to prevent nosocomial transmission of tuberculosis (TB).
We conducted a systematic review to summarize the evidence on the incidence and prevalence of latent TB infection (LTBI) and disease among HCWs in LMICs, and to evaluate the impact of various preventive strategies that have been attempted. To identify relevant studies, we searched electronic databases and journals, and contacted experts in the field. We identified 42 articles, consisting of 51 studies, and extracted data on incidence, prevalence, and risk factors for LTBI and disease among HCWs. The prevalence of LTBI among HCWs was, on average, 54% (range 33% to 79%). Estimates of the annual risk of LTBI ranged from 0.5% to 14.3%, and the annual incidence of TB disease in HCWs ranged from 69 to 5,780 per 100,000. The attributable risk for TB disease in HCWs, compared to the risk in the general population, ranged from 25 to 5,361 per 100,000 per year. A higher risk of acquiring TB disease was associated with certain work locations (inpatient TB facility, laboratory, internal medicine, and emergency facilities) and occupational categories (radiology technicians, patient attendants, nurses, ward attendants, paramedics, and clinical officers).
A systematic review demonstrates that tuberculosis is an important occupational problem among health care workers in low and middle-income countries.
One third of the world's population is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB). In many people, the bug causes no health problems—it remains latent. But about 10% of infected people develop active, potentially fatal TB, often in their lungs. People with active pulmonary TB readily spread the infection to other people, including health-care workers (HCWs), in small airborne droplets produced when they cough or sneeze. In high-income countries such as the US, guidelines are in place to minimize the transmission of TB in health-care facilities. Administrative controls (for example, standard treatment plans for people with suspected or confirmed TB) aim to reduce the exposure of HCWs to people with TB. Environmental controls (for example, the use of special isolation rooms) aim to prevent the spread and to reduce the concentration of infectious droplets in the air. Finally, respiratory-protection controls (for example, personal respirators for nursing staff) aim to reduce the risk of infection when exposure to M. tuberculosis is unavoidably high. Together, these three layers of control have reduced the incidence of TB in HCWs (the number who catch TB annually) in high-income countries.
But what about low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where more than 90% of the world's cases of TB occur? Here, there is little money available to implement even low-cost strategies to reduce TB transmission in health-care facilities—so how important an occupational disease is TB in HCWs in these countries? In this study, the researchers have systematically reviewed published papers to find out the incidence and prevalence (how many people in a population have a specific disease) of active TB and latent TB infections (LTBIs) in HCWs in LMICs. They have also investigated whether any of the preventative strategies used in high-income countries have been shown to reduce the TB burden in HCWs in poorer countries.
To identify studies on TB transmission to HCWs in LMICs, the researchers searched electronic databases and journals, and also contacted experts on TB transmission. They then extracted and analyzed the relevant data on TB incidence, prevalence, risk factors, and control measures. Averaged-out over the 51 identified studies, 54% of HCWs had LTBI. In most of the studies, increasing age and duration of employment in health-care facilities, indicating a longer cumulative exposure to infection, was associated with a higher prevalence of LTBI. The same trend was seen in a subgroup of medical and nursing students. After accounting for the incidence of TB in the relevant general population, the excess incidence of TB in the different studies that was attributable to being a HCW ranged from 25 to 5,361 cases per 100, 000 people per year. In addition, a higher risk of acquiring TB was associated with working in specific locations (for example, inpatient TB facilities or diagnostic laboratories) and with specific occupations, including nurses and radiology attendants; most of the health-care facilities examined in the published studies had no specific TB infection-control programs in place.
As with all systematic reviews, the accuracy of these findings may be limited by some aspects of the original studies, such as how the incidence of LTBI was measured. In addition, the possibility that the researchers missed some relevant published studies, or that only studies where there was a high incidence of TB in HCWs were published, may also affect the findings of this study. Nevertheless, they suggest that TB is an important occupational disease in HCWs in LMICs and that the HCWs most at risk of TB are those exposed to the most patients with TB. Reduction of that risk should be a high priority because occupational TB leads to the loss of essential, skilled HCWs. Unfortunately, there are few data available to indicate how this should be done. Thus, the researchers conclude, well-designed field studies are urgently needed to evaluate whether the TB-control measures that have reduced TB transmission to HCWs in high-income countries will work and be affordable in LMICs.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030494.
• US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases patient fact sheet on tuberculosis
• US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information for patients and professionals on tuberculosis
• MedlinePlus encyclopedia entry on tuberculosis
• NHS Direct Online, from the UK National Health Service, patient information on tuberculosis
• US National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, information about tuberculosis for health-care workers
• American Lung Association information on tuberculosis and health-care workers