By Ginny A. Roth
On March 24, 1882, a medical milestone was achieved. Dr. Robert Koch reported his discovery that Mycobacterium tuberculosis was the cause of a disease that was responsible for the deaths of one out of every seven people living in the United States and Europe. This was a critical step towards the effective diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs. Koch’s work with this disease won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1905.
Tuberculosis has been the constant subject of countless public health and fundraising campaigns. Before the 1940s, when antibiotics became an effective treatment, TB patients were isolated in sanatoria, special medical facilities for long term care, where they underwent therapy including plenty of rest and fresh air. One of the most well-known campaigns in the country, the fundraiser Christmas Seals, was started in the US in 1907 to raise funds for TB sanitariums. The 1929 poster above, from the National Tuberculosis Association, carries the slogan, “Early Discovery, Early Recovery,” a public health campaign that encouraged those with symptoms of TB to seek immediate medical care in an effort to not only increase their own chances of recovery, but to prevent the spread of the disease.
In 1982, 100 years after Koch’s discovery, the first World TB Day, which occurs on March 24 each year, was sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. “Find TB. Treat TB. Working together to eliminate TB.” is the theme chosen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for World TB Day 2015, in order to highlight that TB is still a life-threatening problem in the United States, despite the declining number of TB cases. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness about the global epidemic of TB and efforts to eliminate the disease. Today the TB bacterium is widespread with an estimated one third of the world’s population carrying it. Additionally, new drug resistant forms are emerging making treatment more difficult. According to WHO, although an estimated 37 million lives were saved through TB diagnosis and treatment between 2000 and 2013, TB still remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
Nice article! My son’s great great grandfather lost his life to TB… the story of his struggle has been passed from one generation to the next. The disease is real, sadly, but true. ___brandi