Isolation of non-tuberculous mycobacteria among tuberculosis
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There is scarce knowledge on the prevalence of diseases caused by non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) in Pakistan. In the absence of culture and identification, acid-fast bacilli (AFB) causing NTM disease are liable to be misinterpreted as tuberculosis (TB). Introduction of nucleic acid amplification testing for Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC) offers improved diagnostic accuracy, compared with smear microscopy, and also assists in differentiating MTBC from other mycobacteria. This study aimed to investigate the prevalence of NTM among patients investigated for TB and describe NTM disease and treatment outcomes at a tertiary care hospital in Pakistan.

This is a retrospective study, data on NTM isolates among culture-positive clinical samples over 4 years (2016–19) was retrieved from laboratory records. Information on clinical specimens processed, AFB smear results, and for the AFB positive isolates, results of species identification for MTBC, and for NTM isolates, results of species characterization and drug susceptibility testing was collected. Additional clinical data including patient characteristics, treatment regimens, and outcomes were collected for patients with NTM disease.

-- During the study period, 12,561 clinical specimens were processed for mycobacterial culture and 3673 (29%) were reported positive for AFB.

-- Among these 3482 (95%) were identified as MTBC and 191 (5%) as NTM. Among NTM, 169 (88%) were isolated from pulmonary and 22 (12%) from extrapulmonary specimens.

-- Results of NTM speciation were available for 60 isolates and included 55% (n=33) M. avium complex and 25% (n=15) M. abscesses.

-- Among these patients, complete clinical records were retrieved for 12 patients with pulmonary disease including nine infected with M. avium complex and three with M. abscessus.

-- All 12 patients had a history of poor response to standard first-line anti-TB treatment.

-- Ten patients were cured after 18?months of treatment, whereas, one with M. abscessus infection died and another was lost to follow up.

Conclusively, in TB endemic areas, NTM can be misdiagnosed as pulmonary TB leading to repeated failed anti-TB treatment and increased morbidity, emphasizing the need for improved diagnosis.