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New Weapon Targets Ancient Foe

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Microscopic image of a long, thin, rod-like bacteria

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Source: Clifton E. Barry III, Ph.D., NIAID, NIH.

Tuberculosis is an ancient scourge that has evolved in lockstep with humans for more than ten millennia. It infected residents of ancient Egypt; remnants of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the deadly bacterium that ravages the lungs and other organs of its victims, have been found in Egyptian mummies dating back 3,000 years. It is considered one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

I’ve had my own experience with TB. As a medical resident in the intensive care unit in North Carolina in 1977, I was exposed to the bacterium during emergency care of a young migrant worker who arrived at our hospital in extremis from internal bleeding. Only after the hemorrhaging was stopped did we discover his advanced tuberculosis. But I’m happy to say we treated him successfully with a battery of drugs, and he walked out of the hospital. My own TB skin test tested positive a few months later, and so I had to take a year’s worth of therapy with isoniazid to wipe out those little microbial invaders. That was all it took.

For the most part, TB cases have been reduced to a trickle in the Western world—thanks to antibiotics—and relegated to the history books with descriptions of ‘consumption’ in nineteen-century England and tales of jail-like sanatoria where those consumptives were quarantined and often died.