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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek September 18, 2020

Post misleads about COVID-19 using tuberculosis data

If Your Time is short

• Each year, 10 million people worldwide contract tuberculosis and 1.5 million people die from TB, according to the World Health Organization.

• But COVID-19 is far more prevalent in the United States than TB.

• Both diseases can be transmitted from person to person through the air, and wearing a mask is recommended for preventing the spread of both.

The World Health Organization has published a global tuberculosis report every year since 1997. But in 2020, the global TB report isn’t just being used for educational purposes; it’s also being used to mislead social media users about the severity of COVID-19.

One Facebook post employs accurate global tuberculosis numbers in an attempt to play down the need for coronavirus safety precautions like mask wearing.

"Almost 4500 people lose their lives to tuberculosis EVERY SINGLE DAY. 30,000 people fall ill with tuberculosis EVERY SINGLE DAY. Last year alone, 10 million fell ill from TB and 1.5 million died," the post reads, pointing to the World Health Organization as a source. "Why don’t we wear masks for TB? Because CNN hasn’t instructed you to."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Are the numbers right? Yes, for the most part. But the post’s conclusions are misleading. TB isn’t prevalent in the United States, but in countries where it is prevalent, mask wearing actually is recommended. 

Tuberculosis facts

The post correctly references data provided on the World Health Organization’s tuberculosis webpage for some of its facts.

"Every year, 10 million people fall ill with tuberculosis (TB). Despite being a preventable and curable disease, 1.5 million people die from TB each year – making it the world’s top infectious killer," the website reads, providing the same numbers as the post. 

As for the number of people who die each day of TB, the post again pulls numbers directly from the WHO. 

"Each day, nearly 4500 people lose their lives to TB and close to 30,000 people fall ill with this preventable and curable disease," reads a WHO press release about World Tuberculosis Day 2019. 

However, the post misleads when it suggests that people don’t wear masks to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. They do.

COVID-19 vs. TB in the U.S.

Tuberculosis and COVID-19 "are both infectious diseases that attack primarily the lungs," reads a WHO site that examines the two diseases. Both the coronavirus and TB bacteria can spread through the air from one person to another, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It’s possible the coronavirus can also be spread by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose. The CDC explains on its website that we are still learning about how the virus spreads.

The WHO guidelines on preventing and controlling TB infections recommend wearing masks as a type of respiratory hygiene measure that can help prevent the spread of the disease. But because TB is less prominent in the U.S. and TB has been around far longer, the suggestion has not been given much media attention. 

Featured Fact-check

The Union, an international organization that aims to help countries develop, implement and assess "anti-tuberculosis, lung health and non-communicable disease programmes," created a frequently asked questions document about COVID-19 and TB. 

In response to the question, "Should I wear a mask?" the document says: "Wearing a mask presents a barrier for the spread of both TB and COVID-19 as masks stop them from being distributed into the air if being worn by someone who has symptoms or being inhaled by or touched by others in the immediate environment."

If the diseases’ transmission is similar and masks help slow the spread, why has the response to COVID-19 in the U.S. looked so different from the response to TB each year? Because COVID-19 is much more prevalent in the U.S. than tuberculosis.

The WHO reports that most of the people who contract TB live in "low- and middle-income countries," and about half of all people with the disease can be found in the following eight countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and South Africa.

Since Jan. 21, 2020, the CDC has reported more than 6.6 million total cases of COVID-19. The last daily update increased the total by 41,464 cases — meaning that in one day, the U.S. alone reported more COVID-19 cases than the average global increase of TB cases (close to 30,000) each day.

According to the CDC’s most recent available data, there were 9,025 cases of TB in the U.S. in 2018 and 9,088 in 2017. Provisional data for 2019 suggests there were 8,920 TB cases last year.

With fewer than 10,000 cases of TB in the U.S. in every year since 2012, TB is not the same as COVID-19, in terms of its threat to Americans. What’s more, there’s a vaccine to protect against TB that the CDC website says is not widely used in the U.S., but is "often given to infants and small children in other countries where TB is common."

A vaccine for COVID-19 does not exist yet. The CDC, WHO, doctors and public health officials all across the country now urge people to wear masks while the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The spread of COVID-19 remains a large, ongoing problem in the U.S. This has resulted in American news organizations emphasizing experts’ calls for people to wear masks and reporting on mask mandates. (Examples of this seen here, here and here). 

Nearly 200,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. The most recent CDC data indicates that in 2017, 515 people died of TB.

COVID-19 has not existed for a full year, but even comparing current numbers to yearly totals of TB cases and deaths, it is clear that COVID-19 is a more serious threat to Americans.

Our rating

A Facebook post claims, "Last year alone, 10 million fell ill from TB and 1.5 million died. … Why don’t we wear masks for TB? Because CNN hasn’t instructed you to."

The numbers in the claim are based on global data from the WHO. However, the post leaves out important context when it fails to mention that COVID-19 is far more prevalent in the U.S. than TB. As a result, experts recommend wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mask wearing is also recommended to prevent the spread of TB in places where it is common.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Lead Stories, "Fact Check: Not Wearing Masks For Tuberculosis In The U.S. Does Not Mean Masks Are Not Needed For COVID-19," May 1, 2020

USA Today, "Fact check: Tuberculosis is more dangerous than COVID-19, but context matters," Aug. 30, 2020

World Health Organization, "Global tuberculosis report 2019," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

World Health Organization, "Tuberculosis," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

World Health Organization, "World Tuberculosis Day 2019," March 24, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Tuberculosis (TB) - How TB Spreads," accessed Sept. 18, 2020 

World Health Organization, "Tuberculosis and COVID-19," accessed Sept. 18, 2020 

CDC, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - How It Spreads," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

CDC, "Tuberculosis (TB) - TB Incidence in the United States," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

CDC, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - United States COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by State," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

CDC, "CDC Fact Sheet - TB in the United States, 2019*" accessed Sept. 18, 2020

The Union, "Mission, Vision and Values," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

The Union, "COVID-19 and lung health: Frequently Asked Questions," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

World Health Organization, "WHO guidelines on tuberculosis infection prevention and control - 2019 update," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

CDC, "Considerations for Wearing Masks," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

World Health Organization, "Q&A: Masks and COVID-19," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

CNBC, "CDC director says face masks may provide more protection than coronavirus vaccine," Sept. 16, 2020 

CNN, "CDC recommends Americans wear face masks voluntarily in public but some officials say they felt 'pressured' to draft new guidelines," April 3, 2020

Detroit Free Press, "Whitmer issues new executive order seeking to clarify Michigan's face mask mandate," July 17, 2020

CDC, "Tuberculosis (TB) Vaccination," accessed Sept. 18, 2020

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Post misleads about COVID-19 using tuberculosis data

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