Tuberculosis (TB) typically attacks the lungs and is caused by the bacteria, Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. It has been around for many years and is still present in society today.
The disease was referred to as ‘The White Plague’ in the 1700s due to the color of the patients’ skin becoming paler until Johann Schonlein came up with the name ‘tuberculosis’ in 1834.
TB spreads through the air when someone with the disease coughs, sneezes or speaks, but in the late 1800s, residents of New England weren’t aware of this. When the disease swept through America in the 1800s, it was referred to as ‘The Consumption’, primarily in New England.
As the disease swept through Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and other parts of New England, it was considered by residents as a full-blown ‘vampire panic’. Unknown at the time that tuberculosis was a bacterial disease, other household members easily contracted the disease.
During those days, it was thought that Tuberculosis was caused by those who succumbed to the illness and returned from the dead to drain the life-force from their surviving relatives.
Most people in New England, and many in Europe, believed this was how the disease was spreading and this belief may have spawned many of the traditional rules of vampirism we follow today.
With total belief the disease was spread this way, bodies were exhumed and examined in an attempt to protect the uninfected. The examination was to check if the corpse was ‘unusually fresh’ and whether the heart and other organs were full of liquid blood. If they were, then the corpse was deemed to be one that was feeding on the living and spreading the disease.
To combat this, there were a few different methods used to stop the spread. The first was to simply turn the corpse over in its grave, which was likely superstitions or trivial belief that it would stop the threat. The second way was to burn the ‘fresh’ organs before reburying the corpse. Another way was decapitating the corpse.
Many family members would inhale the smoke from the burning organs as it was believed this would further protect them from the disease.
A 2017 novel titled The New England Vampire was inspired by the story. It takes the events from the 1800s and crafts them into a brilliant new supernatural fantasy that does incredible justice to both the vampire community and the history of the events.
In 1889, Dr. Hermann Biggs proposed that tuberculosis cases should be reported to the New York City Department of Health & Hygiene. A proposal that was approved, leading to the first New York publication in 1893.
Later, Dr. Robert Koch published the discovery of ”Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (tubercle bacillus)” in 1882 which is the bacteria that causes TB.
In 1921 the first vaccine, named Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG), was developed by Albert Calmette and Jean-Marie Camille Guerin. Though not widely used and not offering total protection against TB, it is still given to children and infants to prevent TB meningitis in countries that where the disease is common.
The CDC followed the New York City Department of Health & Hygiene by publishing Tuberculosis data in 1953 which reported a little over 84,000 cases in the US.
Fast forwarding to the current day, Tuberculosis is still an issue around the world, but 87% of new TB cases are confined to the top 30 burdened countries including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan and South Africa.
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