The conventional understanding of the spread of tuberculosis, a deadly infectious disease that claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people last year, was upended on Tuesday after South African researchers claimed aerosols — tiny droplets that are exuded while breathing — are the main contributor to its transmission, the New York Times reported.

The findings, presented at a virtual conference, shift away from the widely-believed hypothesis that coughing, a signature symptom of the disease, was the primary means of circulation. The report indicated scientists believe as much as 90% of the tuberculosis disease released by an infected person could be carried in the aerosol particles.

The disease is caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis and often targets the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body like the kidney, spine or brain.

It was previously believed transmission primarily occurred through coughing, which sprayed heavy droplets containing the bacteria onto others, according to the New York Times report.

Research throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic increasingly found the virus also spread through the air in tiny particles, though that mode of transmission was not fully appreciated in the early stages of the pandemic.

The most recent tuberculosis research comes on the heels of grim findings that showed yearly tuberculosis deaths increased for the first time in a decade last year.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2021 global report also found far fewer people were diagnosed with tuberculosis last year, a byproduct of essential health services being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Detection of tuberculosis is essential, the WHO said, as an estimated 66 million lives were saved through diagnosis and treatment between 2000 and 2020.


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