Tuberculosis 1800’s to Present Day

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Americans had no idea how life could be so grand one minute and deadly the next.  America and the world faced one health crisis after another.  Scientists were struggling to find cures, while thousands would die.

Tuberculosis, is now known to have started with the Greeks, and ancient mummies have been tested, and found to have had the disease.  Many diseases, including cancer, were not cancer at all, but tuberculosis.

The symptoms of tuberculosis is a cough, fatigue, chest pain, and spitting up blood.  Before all the new technology, lung cancer may have been diagnosed instead of tuberculosis, since its’ existence would be known after lung cancer.  There is a case documented where a young man was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and in 2001, doctors told him he had lung cancer, only to return to his room the next day and tell this man, he did not have lung cancer but tuberculosis returned.

sanatoriumTuberculosis, is found in the lungs, and in the liver, intestines, bones, and brain.  The bacteria may lay dormant for years and something triggers it, and diagnosed.  Once you have tuberculosis, it can return.

The way of treating this disease during the mid 1900’s has continued today.  A surgeon reported he used the old way; removing the ribs.  Some doctors believe the removal of a lung can prove successful.  They also admit there is no real cure for the disease, some patients who lived through the epidemic may have had one of the various forms of T.B. since it does, at times, effect many parts of ones’ body.

There is a documented case study of a woman in 1953 who contacted T.B. and was given two weeks to live, she was in her twenties, and she beat T.B. and lived until the ripe old age of ninety-six.

Regarding drugs, and treatment, you must know it wasn’t until 1948 when the compound for aspirin was discovered.  The new hope for T.B. patients came in 1952 when the anti-biotic Streptomycin had been given to patients.  The doctors believed this treatment worked, but realized it did, for a short period of time.

When T.B. became an epidemic, it received the name The White Plague.  The disease, discovered in 1882 and believed to be hereditary, but no one knew how it spread.  Fear gripped the country and people believed the disease was contagious, so the sick left their home and were taken to places called sanitariums, or a facility run by the Government.

Doctors believed if the sick left the cities and fled to the mountains, they had a better chance of survival.  Sanitariums would spring up, reaching hundreds as the disease continued to spread.

The reason why doctors believed T.B. was contagious came from families dying from T.B., as mother, father, and sibling all passed away.  Yet they were confused, since other patients would be the only one in the family, and the family were frequent visitors at the sanitarium, and never came down with the disease.

The word “White Plague” changed to “Consumption” and known as the cause of death, written on death certificates before the name Tuberculosis came to be.  Everyone seemed to fit into a slot, depending on who they were, and how much money the family had.  Also, race was one way of separating the ill, with all white or black hospitals, men and women divided in different buildings.  The only time men and women met were during functions planned at the facility.

Patients with the ability to pay received the best treatment with top research doctors, the top nurses, and all the fresh air in sanitariums that resembled a place to spend the holiday.  When you see photos of those confined to these sanitariums, you see both the sick and those who appear fine to the eye.  Children made friends, played on the playground, attended fresh air schools, and adults would meet and some fell in love while attending a movie on the grounds.  Many men and women were married right at the sanitarium, and had children.  This was common due to the length of there stay.  Those without money left their home to live in caves, abandoned train cars or trolleys, even back yards in tents.

By the year 1920, every age group was confined in a sanitarium, with an estimate of  12,000 patients in 600 sanitariums.

In 1885, one of the best sanitariums was located in Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains.  This happened because a doctor from New York City who was sick with T.B., went to the Adirondack Mountains; he believed if he was going to die he would be fishing or hunting.  Instead, he would leave the Adirondacks, free of T.B.  The doctor returned to New York City only to find the disease returned too.  He returned to the Adirondacks and opened a sanitarium, where he worked, and once again, cured.  It obtained the name as the best, regarding where it was located.

Another area where patients were received from all over the country was Denver Colorado because of the dry air, sunshine, and the ability for patients to receive fresh air on the mountains, even in winter.  Photos can be found where patients slept out doors while the snow blew onto their covers.  To some who frequented this sanitarium, it became known as the last resort.  To the surprise of this mountain community, sixty percent of its’ citizens, by 1920, where patients and their families.

Those who were sick from the far west flocked to Arizona and California.

With so many children afflicted by T.B., if they were lucky to have a light case, you would find them running through hoses on a hot summer day, playing, running, and doing everything a child would if they attended summer camp.  But T.B. was a strange bug, as one person reported, “I had a friend, more like a sister, and one night I asked where she went,”  they told her she died.  She believed she was next, but is still alive today.

X-rays were constant for patients, and those who received regular check ups.  This would continue into the early sixties.  From the year 1905 when Doctor Robert Coke won the Nobel Prize for identifying the germ and believed everyone was at risk to the sixties when X-rays were still given to detect the disease.  Then, as you know, radiation in excessive amounts is harmful to your health.  Once doctors learned about the anti-biotic patients did leave hospitals and returned home.  A powerful drug now could be taken anywhere. In some cases, drugs do not work forever, and for some, they do not cure a sickness.  As of today, there is still no cure for T.B.  How long a vaccine works, we still don’t know.

I have questioned immunizations first given in the fifties, which were to last a lifetime.  From my own personal experience, I learned my immunity to the measles was no longer in my body, I could catch, and spread the measles, and yes, another epidemic could arise.  This was found when I began working in a hospital, each employee needed to be tested for their immunity to diseases once popular, and vaccinated for in the fifties.  I needed to be given another dose.  Since researchers really had no study to rely on regarding the  length of time a vaccine remains in ones’ body, this too, can effect diseases which not only can be drug resistant but diseases we believed we were immune too, it makes you think another epidemic can always spring up from no-where.

It is known the disease is spread by the sputum and is an infectious disease.  The research tells us of a steady number of new cases appear each year.  It is still believed that T.B. is imported from immigrants, those only affecting the lungs, and a disease which travels to other parts of the body.   This is a bug that doesn’t go away.  Today two million people around the world die from T.B.

1 Comment
  1. Ernie Willis says

    There was a recent programme on the BBC about milk. It seems that the spread of TB in the UK during the 1850-1940 period was down to the fact that milk could be delivered in bulk by the new railway system. Previously milk was obtained from your own cow or a local farmer. Now with the railways you could deliver milk all over the country very quickly. The fact that they could now combine the milk from several farms, firstly in large churns and then in specially made milk trucks, meant that it only needed one cow to have Bovine TB to contaminate the whole batch. Could these circumstances have been the same in the USA.

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