To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Interesting article about tuberculosis:

Return of the White Plague

For those of you who consider tuberculosis a thing of the distant past, let me tell you a story. As a young man in 1913, Eugene O'Neill, the future playwright and winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, was confined for five months to a TB sanatorium. His family considered the initial diagnosis practically a death sentence. They had a point: Tuberculosis was then the leading cause of death for Americans ages 20 to 45. But by living under an enforced regimen of rest, fresh air and exercise, and by eating a diet rich in fat and protein, O'Neill recovered. A young woman he met and fell in love with in the sanatorium was not nearly so fortunate. Emaciated, pale and weak, she entered her last bloody round of violent coughing 18 months later. Writing about her death, O'Neill described tuberculosis as a cruel game of drawing straws, with more short straws than long ones.

I read a book, and then lent it out and didn't get it back, about the tuberculosis pandemic of the 19th century. Besides killing real-life people - the article lists a few - the disease figures in literature of the day. Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady come to mind. It appears that just about everyone had some degree of infection at that time. If you were lucky, your immune system stayed on top of it. The sanatoria were for people who got run down and the disease got the upper hand - they were made to rest and eat so they could knock their infections back down. It was something to be managed, like diabetes is today. Really bad cases might be treated with surgery, but remember that they didn't have the imaging we have now - no x-ray, no MRI, no CT. They could only listen with a stethoscope and try to figure out where the infection probably was. It's amazing that the human race survived.

People tend to get blase about diseases because they are treatable. Jim Henson, the Muppet guy, died of pneumonia because he wouldn't go to the doctor until he was too sick to be saved. It's rare for an otherwise healthy person to die of pneumonia these days - used to be fairly frequent before antibiotics came along. But if you don't go to the doctor when you're sick, it might as well be 1850 instead of 2007.

And don't get me started on people who think that vaccinations are worse than the diseases they prevent - yes, there are people who say that. Shocking ignorance of even recent history. My brother-in-law's girlfriend asked me once if I thought AIDS was a government experiment gone bad. I told her no, I thought we were spoiled. I turned to my MIL and invited her to tell this woman about the polio epidemic that swept through when my FIL was off in the military and she was home with two little boys and no way to go anywhere except on the city bus - and you were supposed to avoid crowds. Every time one of them sneezed she was terrified. The pediatrician would stop by her apartment on his way in to the office to check them out and tell her they did not have polio. My mother's little brother died of diphtheria as a toddler. We get immunized now and don't have to think about these things, but fear of disease used to be a way of life. It's not outside the realm of possibility that it will be again.

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