By Jenny Tindall
A “natural” rouge paints her cheeks, Delicate and fragile she glides, Similarly to a ghost. Her eyes sparkle and her lips are a deep red, Red that is laced into her coughs, Coughs that shake her whole. At night she shivers, taken by a chill, or She wakes in sheets dripping with sweat, Her head feels cool, warm, warmer, hot. A great fatigue wears her down, but oh! She should be so pleased, For consumption did give her so beautiful a frame. Her lungs shook, Soon she was bedridden, Soon she was gone, But oh she did leave so beautifully.
Tuberculosis, previously known as phthisis and consumption, is a bacterial infection. It has ravaged communities for centuries, with the first written records being by Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, in the 2nd millennium BCE. From being known as the “white plague” during its European epidemic of the 18th and 19th century to being a leading cause of death in residential schools, tuberculosis is a serious disease.
What is it?
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis (TB). This slow-growing bacteria grows best in areas that have lots of blood and oxygen. For this reason, most TB infections occur in the lungs. Pulmonary TB is when it affects the lungs, while extrapulmonary TB is outside of the lungs. When a pulmonary TB infection is active, it becomes contagious and spreads in the air. When an infected person breathes out, the bacteria enters the air. Then when a healthy person breathes in, they breathe in the bacteria and become infected.
Common symptoms include bloody coughs for more than 2 weeks, fatigue, weight loss, night sweats, fever, a rapid heartbeat and sometimes even swelling of the neck and chest pain. Treatment typically involves a 6-9 month antibiotic plan. Age, overall health, possible drug resistance and the location of the infection are all taken into consideration for treatment plans. Drug-resistant infections may require treatments for 20-30 months, and even then it is possible for the antibiotics to not work.
Glamourization of the 18th and 19th century
This poem is about a woman living in the 18th-19th century who has TB. With such a high prevalence in Europe during that time, it became romanticized. The characteristic pale faces, rosy cheeks, red lips, and thin frames, the victim of this disease became the beauty standard. Women would wear makeup to achieve the TB look. Poets of the time glamourized TB in their works, remarking that is an interesting and beautiful way to go, and aspiring for that to be the way they pass.
I find infectious diseases fascinating and enjoy learning about the biology and history of them when I can. It is often easy to dissociate from diseases, especially in a developed country with free healthcare. I find that knowing their histories, knowing how they happen and prevention, we can help in small ways to regard them in the serious light they should be. Diseases can also be overwhelming. Knowing biologically how these infections occur, can help break them down and look at them with fact, not fiction.