Tuberculosis was once the leading cause of death in the United States. It may have been around 3 million years, and it’s still killing people today. It can infect people of all ages, as it did Art Holmstrom, the 17-year-old valedictorian-hopeful who you can read about in Section 5 of Open Wndow. My father, too, may have had active tuberculosis. When he lost his eyesight, doctors thought his mysterious eye infection might have been tuberculosis of the eye. That is not surprising, because he worked as a janitor at the Lake Julia Tuberculosis Sanatorium, and like most of the employees, he tested positive for the tubercle bacillus.
Not all tuberculosis becomes active. When it is latent, the immune system keeps the germs suppressed. But if immunity is compromised, sometimes because of another illness or a fall or injury, it can become active. Years ago, tuberculous patients went to sanatoriums where doctors tried, often unsuccessfully, to treat their disease. In 1943, Selman Waksman led a team to develop streptomycin, the first effective antibiotic against tuberculosis. Once this and other drugs successfully treated the disease, so many patients recovered and went home that eventually there was no need for TB sanatoriums, and they closed. The Lake Julia Tuberculosis Sanatorium closed at the end of 1952.
By the 1970s, many experts considered the disease nearly eradicated. But today, one person in four in the world is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and there are now drug-resistant forms of the disease.