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A Halloween Mystery—Did Dracula Have Tuberculosis?

The American Lung Association was founded in 1904 in response to the tuberculosis epidemic. Tuberculosis, or TB, was the most feared disease of the time but did you know that TB has another scary, even ghoulish mystery attached to it? Is it possible that TB was once responsible for a plague of vampires? This Halloween, let's gather around the campfire, clutch our garlic and wooden stakes and hear the story of The Great New England Vampire Panic.

Bela Lugosi as dracula

Variations of the vampire myth appear in almost every culture. Early vampires, especially in European folklore, were usually described as gruesome reanimated corpses that would visit their families or home town at night and cause mischief or even death. But by the 19th century, our vision of the vampire as a pale, gaunt, undead being who feasted on the blood of the living to survive took shape.

So, where does tuberculosis come in? TB is a highly infectious disease that can affect any part of the body, but most often, it attacks the lungs. It was often called "consumption" because sufferers of the disease became gaunt and emaciated as if their bodies were being consumed. It was also called "The White Plague" because its victims would become extremely pale. Starting to sound like a vampire isn't it? The connection was further cemented by other TB symptoms, which included light-sensitive eyes, low body heat, a weak heartbeat, and coughing up blood.

When people contracted and died of "consumption" they often spread the disease to their family and neighbors, who would then become ill and often die. To some of the more superstitious people of the 1800s, this was eerily similar to the vampire rising at night and drinking the blood of family and friends until they wasted away and died. 

All of this brings us to New England in the 1850s. Poor nutrition and sanitation made the perfect breeding ground for TB, and outbreaks were common. It was specifically outbreaks in rural Rhode Island and Connecticut that caused what became known as The Great New England Vampire Panic. Suspicions that the area was rampant with night stalking bloodsuckers struck fear across the region. Here's the gruesome part. In a number of cases, the recently deceased were exhumed and checked for signs that they were indeed the living dead. In some cases, the hearts and lungs of the suspected vampires were burned, before the departed was reburied, in an attempt to stop further night time terrors.

Luckily, vampires have returned to the land of myth. Tuberculosis, however, is very real, and still a major health risk. And while the American Lung Association helped put a stake in its heart so that it was largely controlled in the U.S., there is still the chance that TB could rise from the dead. Despite popular misconceptions that tuberculosis is a disease of the past, it continues to pose a significant threat to global public health.

While it is much less common in the United States, about 1.4 billion people, or one-quarter of the world's population, are infected with tuberculosis. Most infected people have latent TB, meaning they have the tuberculosis germs in their bodies, but their immune systems protect them from becoming sick. However, about 10 million people have active TB disease worldwide.

Most cases of tuberculosis can be cured through treatment with antibiotics, but there are also forms of TB that are drug-resistant, or even worse—multi-drug resistant. This means that some of the drugs used to treat the infection are not effective against the resistant TB germs in the body. That's why it's important that we stay vigilant to continue to stop the spread of TB and support research to find new ways to prevent and treat this serious disease. Learn more about the TB research being funded by the Lung Association. There are currently no vampires involved in American Lung Association research!

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