Edgar Allan Poe. Frederic Chopin. Eleanor Roosevelt. What do these individuals have in common? They each had different careers and lived in different time periods. But what they shared is something found as far back as 15,000 years ago and still persisting today: Tuberculosis.
For most in the developed world, tuberculosis is an unknown or rarely discussed entity. Historically, TB, as it is also known, was a disease affecting the affluent and the poor, the old and the young, and was responsible for claiming many in the prime of their lives.
Saturday marks World Tuberculosis Day, which commemorates the date the discovery of TB was announced. First isolated by German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch on March 24, 1882, TB is a bacterial lung infection that remains problematic to this day. Scientists estimate that up to two billion people are infected worldwide with nearly 10,000 of those cases in the United States. Treatment requires at least six months of multiple antibiotics. If stopped too soon, inadequate therapy can lead to drug resistance making cure rates lower and allowing the continued spread of disease. Additionally, therapy of resistant disease may require more toxic antibiotics.
Fortunately, TB in the United States has slowly declined over the past decade. Concerted efforts by public health providers to track, test and treat cases have resulted in current rates of 2.9 cases per 100,000 persons per the Centers for Disease Control. Based on this level, the U.S. is now classified as a “low incidence” country.
Whereas tuberculosis traditionally affected patients without regard for ethnicity or social status, current risk groups in the U.S. are primarily non-US born immigrants and those with low socioeconomic status. Despite the decrease in overall number of incidences, TB continues to be reported in all 50 states with California, Texas, New York and Florida, accounting for almost half of total cases.
As we look back on the progress made with TB rates in the U. S. and the work needed ahead, part of Emma Lazarus’s poem found on the Statue of Liberty seems to apply. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Despite heroic efforts by public health providers, many of these tired, poor and huddled masses still remain at risk for TB and only through continued engagement and effort from the local to the national level can all truly “breathe free.” For more information on TB symptoms and treatment visit https://www.cdc.gov/tb/publications/factsheets/general/tb.htm.