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Global Health, Health Disparities, In the News, Media, Microbiology, Public Health

A journalist’s experience with tuberculosis, the “greatest infectious killer in human history”

I’m a bit late in finding it, but The Global Mail published a fascinating and sobering feature article last week about the  heartbreaking toll of drug-resistant tuberculosis in parts of the developing world. Journalist Jo Chandler traveled to Papua New Guinea in 2011 to tell the personal stories of those affected with the disease, which is rampant in the country, including a woman named Edna who lost her 19-year-old daughter, Susan:

Tuberculosis retains the distinction of being the greatest infectious killer in human history, claiming an estimated billion lives in the past 200 years. Its toll today is still second only to HIV (and it is the major killer of people with HIV). In 2011, 8.7 million people fell sick with TB. Edna’s daughter was one of 1.4 million who died of it that year.

The story is illustrated with beautiful, disturbing photographs of villagers with the disease that alone are enough to keep me reading. But then Chandler’s narrative takes a riveting, disturbing turn:

Sometime in those few days, somewhere, someone coughed or sneezed or sang or laughed, spraying a cloud of invisible Mycobacterium tuberculosis into the air, and I inhaled. By the time my ride out finally materialises on the tarmac and I click my heels for home, it seems I have a stowaway. Eighteen months later, in March 2013, I am diagnosed with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB). Let’s call it accidental immersion journalism.

I digest all this as I recover at home, still a little shocked when I hear the phrase “I’ve got TB” come from my mouth – and still adjusting to the horrified response it often elicits. My body is sore from surgery, and weakened and assailed by the mindblowing volume and variety of drugs coursing through unhappy veins. My partner is gentle and my children attentive and my parents worried. I’m profoundly grateful to every doctor, every nurse, and for every jab and tablet and almost every bloody cannula.

I have notebooks full of stories of TB patients who die seeing none of it.

Chandler’s story first attracted my interest because of an article I wrote early this year about how the bacterium hides out in the bone marrow of patients, only to resurface years or decades later. But I found I couldn’t tear myself away from Chandler’s comparison of the treatment that she’s receiving at home in Australia (including four months of IV drugs) with that available to infected people in neighboring Papua New Guinea. And like most readers, I suspect, I found myself deeply embarrassed of my lack of awareness of this killer.

Previously: Tuberculosis may remain dormant in bone marrow stem cells of infected patients, Researchers show way to reduce prevalence, spread of TB in former Soviet Union and Coming soon: a faster, cheaper more accurate tuberculosis test

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