In the weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and like many young Americans at the time, my granddad enlisted in the armed services. He traveled from his home in Scranton to Philadelphia and began to prepare himself for what war might bring. But he never made it to the front lines. Instead, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) during his medical screening. This was 1942 and, in those days, the best-case scenario was a year-long stay in a TB sanatorium and painful treatments that included repeatedly collapsing his lungs. The treatment was almost never fully curative but it was the only path available and, if the disease was mild enough, patients would often recover. So, my granddad spent the next year in the Pocono Mountains, away from his family and the woman he loved. He was 24 and his life was put on hold. But most thought he was lucky, and he was. He eventually recovered, completed medical school, and had a family.
In the years after my grandfather’s recovery, a miracle happened: the discovery of antibiotics. Streptomycin became the disease’s first reliable cure, and patients could now be treated in their community hospitals instead of isolated facilities and return to their families to pick up their lives in a matter of weeks, not months.
For decades, TB seemed to fall off the world’s radar. Almost overnight it had gone from one of the world’s leading killers to a curable and preventable disease. But as other diseases that weaken the body’s immune system, such as HIV, began to emerge in the 1980s, TB incidence rates in many parts of the world began to climb. These days, as the disease becomes harder to treat because of growing antibiotic resistance, many high-burden countries feel the pressure to continue long hospitalization periods to ensure that patients are taking their medication regularly and their side effects are being monitored.