High Blood Pressure, a Global Health Threat

Heat map of the global prevalence of raised blood pressure

Caption: Blood pressure is highest in low-income countries
Source: World Health Organization

On Sunday April 7th, we mark the 65th anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO). Each year, WHO uses the occasion to highlight a particular health issue; this year, they chose high blood pressure—hypertension. It’s a timely choice. Worldwide, at least one in three adults suffers from high blood pressure. That amounts to 68 million adults in the U.S. alone.

Your blood pressure naturally rises and falls a bit during the day, but permanent high blood pressure is a dangerous condition that increases your chance of heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and even blindness.

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New Weapon Targets Ancient Foe

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.

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