Monday, February 9, 2015

Tuberculosis: Review of The Forgotten Plague by American Experience (PBS)

Now it is the forgotten plague, but in the 1800's through the early 20th century, tuberculosis (TB) was not out-of-mind. It affected everyone; nearly 1 in 170 people were in a sanitarium. Nearly every family, rich or poor, lost family members to TB. 

Highlighting how the U.S. was affected by TB, American Experience has produced yet another thought-provoking documentary:

American Experience: 
The Forgotten Plague
The Deadly Story of Tuberculosis in America 
and the Hunt for a Cure
Premieres Tues, February 10th from 9-10PM ET on PBS

Scores of Americans, rich and poor, became health-seekers. They migrated west and south, to Los Angeles, Pasadena, Tucson, Denver, and many other now large cities, in search of fresh air and health.

The film is partly based on Living in the Shadow of Death by Sheila Rothman, but also has contribution by authors Andrea Barrett (The Air We Breathe) and Peter Pringle (Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug). Also, in true American Experience form, there are interviews of people affected by TB, namely former patients of Trudeau's Sanitarium (Dr. Edward Trudeau was developer of the first sanitarium in the U.S.).

Dr. Trudeau was himself a patient, and an ardent believer of Robert Koch's 1882 postulates and felt TB to be contagious, especially after he detected the TB bacillus in his own throat swabs. The medical establishment was slow to adapt, and it took decades before major public health measures were taken. 

Public health measures helped with hygiene (think Kleenex, hemlines, beards, parks and playgrounds, and porches), but also led to stigma of the poor, namely immigrants and African Americans. Many people were sent to segregated sanitariums which helped many improve, for a while, but even in Dr. Trudeau's Sanitarium, only 1/3 of his patients (before medications became available) lived. His daughter and himself, as well, succumbed to the disease.

In 1943, Dr. Albert Schatz, working in Selman Waksman's laboratory, developed streptomycin, the first medication to treat TB. Within months, many patients relapsed, underscoring the need for multiple medications to treat this bacillus.

In the 1950's TB became treatable and sanitariums started closing. Today, we have an increase in multi-drug resistant TB. Let's not forget our history. 

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