Every year tuberculosis kills nearly two million people and infects some eight million more. Here a patient in Mumbai, India, is treated for a highly drug-resistant form of the disease. Image: James Nachtwey VII
- Tuberculosis is second only to HIV as the worldwide cause of death from infection, and the pandemic is growing in many places.
- TB is caused by a bacterium. Most cases are treatable, but strains resistant to first- and second-line drugs are on the rise.
- Conventional approaches to developing new antibiotics and vaccines against the disease have mostly failed.
- New tools are enabling scientists to study the TB-causing bacterium in greater detail, offering unprecedented insight into the interactions between pathogen and host. The results are exposing promising new targets for drug therapy
Bubonic plague, smallpox, polio, HIV—the timeline of history is punctuated with diseases that have shaped the social atmospheres of the eras, defined the scope of science and medicine, and stolen many great minds before their time. But there is one disease that seems to have stalked humanity far longer than any other: tuberculosis. Fossil evidence indicates that TB has haunted humans for more than half a million years. No one is exempt. It affects rich and poor, young and old, risk takers and the abstinent. Simply by coughing, spitting or even talking, an infected individual can spread the bacterium that causes the disease.
Today TB ranks second only to HIV among infectious killers worldwide, claiming nearly two million lives annually, even though existing drugs can actually cure most cases of the disease. The problem is that many people lack access to the medicines, and those who can obtain the drugs often fail to complete the lengthy treatment regimen.