written by Dr. Pamela Peacock, Museum Curator
I spent much of 2012 thinking about tuberculosis. As Curator at the Museum of Health Care, I was tasked with developing an online exhibit on the disease, covering how it works and spreads, as well as how we have worked to prevent, diagnose, and treat TB over time.
When I first started this project, I knew very little about tuberculosis. The most obvious image I could conjure was of a figure coughing up blood into handkerchief. The more I learned about TB and how it worked, the more concerned I became. When people broke out into coughing fits around me, I would cringe a little – what IF they did not have a common cold? What IF I caught TB? The thought is disturbing, even if the actuality is highly unlikely.
TB most commonly infects the lungs, though it can infect almost any part of the body, including the heart, the bones, or the brain. Typically, the immune system is able to form a protective layer – a tubercle – around the bacterial infection, but in some people the bacteria are able to continue to replicate in the tubercle until it bursts, damaging lung tissue and releasing bacteria that spread further into the lung and body. In other cases, the bacteria are contained, dormant but not dead, in the tubercle until the immune system is weakened, at which point the bacteria are able to burst out of the weakened tubercle. The image of bacterial time-bombs in the lungs is frightening. Even more so, perhaps, when you consider that for most of history there was no effective treatment for TB. Or, that increasingly tuberculosis bacteria are becoming resistant to the treatments that are currently available. (more…)