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Tuberculosis didn't die with my grandfather

March 27, 2006

My grandfather died of tuberculosis.  He contracted it while fighting in World War I.  He came home, not yet 30, and suffered miserably in a ward full of young men facing the same fate.

Then he died, leaving behind my dad, age 6, my uncle Jack, age 4, and their mother.  My Grandma, Ida Mae, was 28.  She never remarried.

While I was growing up, on the rare occasions when I heard about my dad's dad, someone would say that he died of tuberculosis, a disease that was horrible but was no longer a threat.

Last week, a day came around that I’d never heard of before, World TB Day.  A friend invited me to participate in a telephone briefing where experts from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization reported on the state of tuberculosis today.

While my family was right to tell me that tuberculosis, or TB, was rare, the more specific reality was that it is rare in the United States.  On World TB Day I learned that TB kills 2 million people around the world each year, even though there's now a cure that costs about $16.

Lately in this country, TB doesn’t routinely kill armed services personnel; it’s more likely to be found among homeless people, nursing home residents, prisoners, intravenous drug users, those who are HIV positive and foreign-born people from countries with a prevalence of TB.  Anyone can get TB, but really, most of us are more likely to get shot by Dick Cheney.

Through the magic of Google, I found a diary written by a soldier who served as a nurse in France during World War I.  He wasn’t my granddad, but his diary gives me a glimpse into the world my granddad faced.

The soldier, Pfc Bill Schira, says, “Oct. 14, 1918, feel better today.  The Major examined me again today.  8 p.m.  They just took an X-ray of my lungs and looked through me good.  They suspect T.B.  Gee I hope I haven't got T.B. as I have a bright future ahead of me.  If I have, I will never go Home to all My Dear ones.  I won’t go back to my darling Anna.

“Oct. 15, 1918, I was examined again today by the Major and am still in doubt.  They are giving me Aspirin, Quinine, Strychnine, Glycerin, Digitalis.  The nurse told me this p.m. that I was flirting with the undertaker.  I wonder what Anna will think.  Poor kid. I haven’t been with another girl since I was with her in Tiffin.  Blake is beside me in bed.  He is also a T.B. suspect.”

Bill didn’t die of TB - he came home and married Anna and lived until 1969.  If my granddad had had the same good fortune, he could have enjoyed a long marriage, raised his two boys and lived to know his only granddaughter.

It’s a tough sell to get people to care about tuberculosis today.  Since TB stopped killing American soldiers and other regular folks, our country hasn't given the disease much thought.  One-third of the world’s TB cases are in India; sub-Saharan Africa is also extremely hard-hit.

During the telephone briefing, the group of medical professionals heralded some good news:

•  A global plan to stop TB was recently unveiled.  The plan is to completely vanquish the disease through expanded education, improved diagnostics and drug development.  If it’s successful, 14 million people will be prevented from contracting TB over the next decade.

•  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has upped funding for TB control from $300 million to $900 million.

•  Last week the United States Senate passed an amendment to increase the U. S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria from $300 million to $866 million.  The bipartisan effort was led by Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.  Now it needs to pass the House.

The best hope we have of saving people from tuberculosis isn’t the cure, it’s worldwide eradication, and that takes a huge investment.  But we can afford it.  It’s amazing that two American people can contribute more money to fight a global disease than the entire United States of America, but all money will be welcome, I’m sure.

It’s bittersweet to think that what killed my grandfather can be cured now for $16.  Here's hoping that Congress votes to increase funding to wipe out this disease.  If it does, it will be contributing to an effort that will help boys all over the world grow up with fathers and girls everywhere to get to know their granddads.

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Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.

 

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