Taking Stock of Tuberculosis

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In the 1800s into the early part of last century, tuberculosis was a catastrophic problem for health in England and France, most notably, causing one in four deaths in England around 1815. It was nicknamed the ‘White Death.” Even 100 years later in 1915, tuberculosis was causing one in six deaths in France. Spread through the air, it infected people and cast them in a ghostly white hue.

Modern medicine has made many strides, and most westernized countries have tuberculosis well under control. But, alarmingly, tuberculosis has been on the rise in Britain, striking 8,000 people in 2005. It’s alarming because Britain had nearly eradicated the disease 20 years ago. But in 2005, the rate jumped 10% from the year before, the biggest jump since 1999.

The British Lung Foundation has taken it seriously, calling tuberculosis a potential threat in 21st century Britain. But what is keeping this 19th century disease around? Shouldn’t modern medicine have disposed of it?

Certain strains of the disease are becoming resistant to drugs. The spread of AIDS is also billed as a factor, because the underlying infection makes people susceptible to tuberculosis. The biggest, though, for people living in westernized countries, is travel. Experts believe the rise in
tuberculosis is largely attributable to the rise in air travel between continents. The disease thrives in poor urban areas — just as it did hundreds of years ago — that are densely packed with people. These areas are populous in many poverty-stricken countries, but they exist in many rich countries as well.

In any event, our interconnected world brings certain risks to our doorstep. If Britain is experiencing a rise in tuberculosis, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that, for North America it could one day pose a greater problem than it does currently. As a matter of fact, Britain is saying that countries must work together to halt the spread of tuberculosis.

The disease is a life-threatening infection that strikes your lungs: the airborne bacteria settle there. The World Health Organization predicts that the current numbers, two million deaths a year worldwide, will rise in the next couple of decades. An incredible two billion people are believed to be infected with tuberculosis now. If the “active” form of the disease is left untreated, it can be fatal. With proper care, though, it can be treated; but for the world’s poor people, this is often not a possibility.

If you have a weakened immune system, it’s a good idea to be checked for tuberculosis every six months or so. Preventative measures can be put in place to meet the threat head-on. But if we ignore the threat, that mistake can be grave.