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Skip Navigation Linksthe-history-of-an-ancient-disease-tb The History of an Ancient Disease (TB)

Many believed that Tuberculosis (TB) was a form of punishment and this can be found in a number of ancient literary scripts creating a mythological idea around the disease. During the 15th century, TB was the leading cause of deaths and it even became a reference in some of Shakespeare’s plays such as Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing

Known as the great white plague, Tuberculosis’ name was introduced in the first half of the 19th century and refers to a condition caused by infectious agents known as tubercle bacilli.

TB, the most common name for phthisis, scrofula, tabes or lupus, has in the past been difficult to diagnose as the illness has been confused with many other diseases. It is known that TB can attack the entire body, but it is more known for the damage it does to the lungs.

Throughout history there have been many attempts at treatment, most without success. Some of the very obscure treatments included cutting off cool air, changes in diet, destruction of clothing, warm sea air, milk from pregnant women, seaweed under the pillow, cold baths and deep breathing. However, real cures were still a long way in the future at that point in time.

During 1854, the most common treatment for TB patients was wholesome food, plenty of fresh air and rest; this was the most modern way of treating the disease, but progress and improvement were slow.

The Breakthrough

A real breakthrough was discovered in 1882 by the Nobel Prize winner named Robert Koch. Koch, a German bacteriologist, isolated the infectious agent known as tuberculosis bacteria or tubercle bacilli. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905.

It was however discovered in 1889 that TB could be prevented and was not a hereditary disease. Progress was only achieved during 1945-1960 when new antibiotics came into use. The search for the perfect cure continued.

Almost 3000 years went by before the full nature of TB had been understood. Governments provided better education to the public and steps were taken to improve circumstances in societies. Antibiotics became more developed and more patients were cured. After 1960, the disease came under control and only a few beds were needed for patients suffering from TB.

TB vs COVID-19

In light of the latest medical world scare, we compare the nightmarishly COVID-19 to TB.

According to the Situational Dashboard of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the data regarding COVID-19 are changing daily, but the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is increasing. Approximately 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018 of which over 250,000 were HIV positive. This relates to more than 4,000 deaths a day due to TB.

The frequency of deaths in a specified population during a specified interval of time determines the mortality rate. Unfortunately the mortality rates are unreliable at this point in time due to a variety of factors with the COVID-19 disease as we do not know exactly how many cases there are. This is due to underreporting and people with minimal or mild symptoms not being tested, for example. Some estimated mortality rates for COVID-19 range anywhere from 1.5 to 20% (20% being one of the highest estimates at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China).

Untreated TB has an average mortality rate of 45% in contrast to COVID-19. However, TB is not only preventable but treatable, and the global success rate reported by the WHO for those who started TB treatment in 2018 was 85%.

TB is technically deadlier than COVID-19, but we need to keep the diseases themselves and other risk factors into consideration such as:

  • age,
  • HIV status,
  • the quality of the body’s immune systems, etc.

People with active, untreated TB is a far more critical matter than even the highest projected mortality estimates for COVID-19. TB should therefore still be considered perilous and addressing prevention and treatment options for TB should still be focused on at present. The positive note on TB is that treatments that work do exist, even treatments for the infection stage to prevent a person from becoming unwell with TB, unlike COVID-19.

Comparison of TB and COVID-19

How it is spreadAirborneDroplet spread
How it is diagnosedSputum tests for those with a cough. Other samples depending on symptoms.Nasal swabs and/or sputum tests
PathogenMycobacterium tuberculosis complexSevere acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)
InfectiousnessRange from less than 1 to up to 4 people infected per 1 person with TBCurrently an average of 2.2 people infected per 1 person with COVID-19
PreventionPrevention measures include TB preventive therapy for those with known contacts with TB and good respiratory hygiene measuresSocial distancing, good respiratory hygiene measures and handwashing with soap for at least 20 seconds
TreatmentAntibiotics. Drug-sensitive TB 4 antibiotics for 6 months. Drug-resistant TB treatment, antibiotics for 9-24 months.Supportive treatments currently. Many drug trials under way.
VaccineBCG has some protective effects, particularly for childrenNo

Neil and Janet Croft 2005

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