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Tuberculosis

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Definition

Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially fatal contagious disease that can affect almost any part of the body but is mainly an infection of the lungs. It is caused by a bacterial microorganism, the tubercle bacillus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although TB can be treated, cured, and can be prevented if persons at risk take certain drugs, scientists have never come close to wiping it out. Few diseases have caused so much distressing illness for centuries and claimed so many lives.

Symptoms

Tuberculosis was popularly known as consumption for a long time. Scientists know it as an infection caused by M. tuberculosis. In 1882, the microbiologist Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus, at a time when one of every seven deaths in Europe was caused by TB. Because antibiotics were unknown, the only means of controlling the spread of infection was to isolate patients in private sanitoria or hospitals limited to patients with TB—a practice that continues to this day in many countries. The net effect of this pattern of treatment was to separate the study of tuberculosis from mainstream medicine. Entire organizations were set up to study not only the disease as it affected individual patients, but its impact on the society as a whole. At the turn of the twentieth century more than 80% of the population in the United States were infected before age 20, and tuberculosis was the single most common cause of death. By 1938 there were more than 700 TB hospitals in this country.

Tuberculosis spread much more widely in Europe when the industrial revolution began in the late nineteenth century. The disease became widespread somewhat later in the United States, because the movement of the population to large cities made overcrowded housing so common. When streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against M. tuberculosis, was discovered in the early 1940s, the infection began to come under control. Although other more effective anti-tuberculosis drugs were developed in the following decades, the number of cases of TB in the United States began to rise again in the mid-1980s. This upsurge was in part again a result of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the poor areas of large cities, prisons, and homeless shelters. Infected visitors and immigrants to the United States also contributed to the resurgence of TB. An additional factor is the AIDS epidemic. AIDS patients are much more likely to develop tuberculosis because of their weakened immune systems. There still are an estimated 8 to 10 million new cases of TB each year worldwide, causing roughly 3 million deaths.

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