With coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic disrupting nearly every aspect of American life, it’s hard to think that another lung disease was once the most feared health scourge in the world. Although the 1918 Flu Epidemic has been getting a lot of press lately, the disease we’re referring to is tuberculosis (TB). March 24th is designated World TB Day, a reminder each year that this health threat is far from gone and still a major health risk around the globe. In fact, the organization that would eventually become the American Lung Association was founded in 1904 to protect Americans from the risk of TB.
World TB Day is dedicated to educating the public about the impact of TB around the world and raising awareness of both successes in TB prevention and control and the challenges that still lie ahead. In recognition of World TB Day, here are some useful factoids about TB that can help us as we navigate our current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020:
- The Spread of Disease
TB is caused by a contagious bacterial infection, while COVID-19 is caused by a contagious viral infection. Both diseases attack the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body. While we are still trying to understand the impacts of the novel coronavirus, we know that TB is responsible for around 1.5 million deaths globally each year. Additionally, while both diseases are spread by close contact with an infected person, we are learning that COVID-19 is a much more contagious. And we are still learning much more about this new lung disease as the pandemic progresses.
- The American Lung Association is Born
At the start of the twentieth century, TB was the deadliest infectious disease in the world. In 1904, a group of American doctors and concerned citizens founded the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis. Now known as the American Lung Association, reducing the impact of lung disease is still one of the cornerstones of our mission. And today, we are just as committed to support the latest threat to lung health – the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
- The Lung Association Takes Action
Much of the early effort to control TB was before the discovery of antibiotics – akin to the moment we are living in now where there is not a specific treatment for COVID-19 outside of supportive care. Instead, our past work focused heavily on campaigns to prevent the spread of the disease, such as improved sanitation, personal hygiene and isolation of the sick in special hospitals called sanatoriums. One of the biggest issues we faced was people spreading the disease by spitting on sidewalks. In fact, one of our most successful campaigns to rid the U.S. of TB were bricks that were put in the sidewalk reminding people not to spread the disease through spitting.
- What’s Old is New Again
Today we know bacteria and viruses can live on certain surfaces—sometimes for hours and even days—and that you can become infected by touching that surface with your hand, then touching your face, nose or mouth. So many of the prevention techniques that work for TB apply today as we try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, such as proper hand washing, sanitizing surfaces and reducing contact with others, especially the sick. It may seem like we’re all learning to wash our hands properly for the first time, but it’s actually a time-honored public health practice!
- Research - The Key to Long-Term Success
Within the first 50 years of our efforts, TB was no longer a widespread disease in the U.S. Today, TB infection rates in the U.S. are the lowest recorded since national reporting began in 1953. However, the decline has slowed in recent years and the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the disease highlight the need to maintain focus on eradicating TB through surveillance, treatment and prevention, and the Lung Association has continued to fund TB researchers over the past decade. Research is one of the key tools in keeping infectious diseases at bay. We are committed to support the impact of COVID-19. Read up on how a member of our Research Team is discovering breakthroughs to this new threat to lung health.
- Lessons from the Past Help Us Today
Tuberculosis is one of the world’s oldest diseases. It plagued the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, including King Tut. Many famous people fell victim to the disease, including: Pocahontas, Andrew Jackson, Jane Austin, Doc Holliday, George Orwell, Eleanor Roosevelt and rock star Tom Fogerty. Former Beatle Ringo Starr spent two years in a sanatorium recovering from TB as a child. By looking back at our history, we can better understand how to address our current global pandemic.
In this time of heightened awareness of global risks to lung health, we are more dedicated than ever to being America’s trusted champion for lung health and in fulfilling our mission to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through education, advocacy, and research. Because when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.
Blog last updated: August 29, 2023