Tuberculosis was first recorded 5,400 years ago in an Egyptian mummy. The Greeks wrote about it, giving it the name "phthisis". It was a killer then too. The most lethal disease that the Greeks dealt with.
It wasn't until 1546 that doctors figured out that the disease was contagious. Another 200 years passed before doctors figured out it was an equal opportunity disease. Robert Koch found the bacteria in 1882. Koch's work with the bacteria earned him a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1905.
The disease itself is spread whenever infected individuals cough, sneeze, spit or even just talk. It is very contagious and because it mutates easily can be almost impossible to treat.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the germ that festers inside a person's lungs. Many get infected a year. The germs laying dormant until it's ready to attack.
Not everyone who becomes infected will get sick. In fact chances are greater that an infected person won't. If 100 people are infected 90-95% will never show a symptom or get ill. It's that 5-10% though that need to worry.
The ones that do get ill generally have a weakened immune system. Those already infected with HIV, the elderly and young children are often the ones who come down with the illness.
The virus is mostly known for attacking the lungs but in truth it isn't picky. It likes to spread it's wings and visit other sites in an infected person's body. The kidneys, spine and brain are all organs that earn frequent fliers points on the TB search and destroy mission.
Okay, you've been exposed. You're hoping for the best but what should you be looking out for? The cough. The long and unending cough is often the first symptom that brings people into the doctor's office. The other things to be aware of are weight loss, fatigue, lack of appetite, chills and fever. Pretty common symptoms of other diseases. And that itself is a problem. Unless you know that TB is a possibility doctors will be testing for everything else.
WHO is hoping to stop this killer in it's tracks by 2015. With only eight more years to get to their goal they are working to see that more people in under developed areas get TB diagnosis and treatment. If they can over 14 million lives will be saved. The main focus are areas already being hammered by HIV infections. Africa and parts of Eastern Europe are in their target zones.
Most in the developed world have had a TB test. The patch test on a person's lower arm gives results in a few days. If the test is positive drugs are given.
There is a vaccine called BCG, but it's not proven to be that effective.
The good news today is almost everyone who contacts TB can be cured. The bad news is that most of the world doesn't have the drugs to do so.
The further bad news is there's a new killer in the TB family. One that is more violent and has mutated to a point that standard drugs do nothing to stop it. XDR-TB has overcome up to three classes of medications. With only 6 classes of drugs in total it is a hard one to conquer. The drugs it takes to attack the strain are expensive and may need to be taken for as long as two years. The side effects are also sometimes as bad as the disease.
"It is of grave concern if it is not appropriately addressed," Dr. Anne Fanning told CBC Newsworld. "Drug resistance happens if treatment is not handled well. Good TB treatment in the first instance cures. Poor treatment creates drug resistance."
How is Canada doing in the battle with TB? For a country filled with immigrants coming from all points of the world, not that badly. The rate of the disease has dropped from about 120 cases per 100,000 people in the 1940s, to 5.2 cases per 100,000 people in 2002.
While Canada had hoped to be TB free by 2000 it is still doing better than many countries.
Someday it may be a disease of the past, but for now it's here and we have to watch out for it. Just remember it's not incurable and the chances are good that you won't have to do the battling.