Tuberculosis, Past, Present and Future
Tuberculosis was a massive scourge in the ancient world. Archaeologists have found evidence of TB in human remains as old as 7000 years. It is known to have been a big killer in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and has killed billions of people during history. Estimates say that it has killed at least a billion people during the last 200 years of the 20th century.
In Victorian England, TB was very common. It was often referred to as consumption or ‘wasting disease’ and was responsible for many premature deaths. Huge TB hospitals, sanatoriums were built and the main cure for TB was to take plenty of fresh air. Sanatoriums usually had large terraces where patients could be wheeled outside in their beds, even on freezing cold days, to breathe good air.
This actually did no good at all, and it could easily have made them worse. However, the doctors at the time did not know this because the cause of TB was not discovered until 1882, when the great scientist Robert Koch showed that the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis was responsible.
Fighting TBThe discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s and the subsequent development of the BCG vaccine against TB should have marked a sharp decline in TB. This did happen in the industrialised world for a time and, in the 1950s, scientists in the United States believed they were on the verge of eradicating TB. But then antibiotic resistance started to appear, and it was shown that the BCG vaccine was not very effective at preventing infection by M. tuberculosis.
The rate of TB infection in the developing world continued to be high but then, in the 1980s, there was a sudden change, a change that led to the bacterium that causes TB winning its fight against modern medicine. When the AIDS epidemic began, the reduced immunity of people affected allowed TB to go on the rampage. Cases began rising at an alarming rate in the USA, and a similar increase was seen in Europe. The combination of HIV and antibiotic resistance led to a great upsurge in cases, that we are still struggling to control.