Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Invincible Microbe

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
149 pages
Clarion Books

Publisher's Description:

For centuries tuberculosis in many forms was treated with everything from poultices and potions to the king's touch. The microorganism that causes the disease was eventually identified, more effective treatments were developed, and the cure for TB was thought to be within reach. But the TB germ simply will not die; drug-resistant varieties continue to plague and panic the human race. The "biography" of this deadly germ, an account of the diagnosis, treatment, and "cure" of the disease over time, and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere but was most prevalent among the poor are woven together and supported by 70-plus archival prints and photographs.

My Comments:

Murphy and Blank tackle TB from three perspectives, presenting a biography of this evolving microorganism, an account of how the illness came to be treated and cured, and finally a social history of the disease.

I was fascinated by the many photographs, including one of a 500,000 year old fossilized skull of a homo erectus that contained scars caused by TB bacterium. The layout is one of the strong points of this book. That skull photograph appears on a two-page spread along with an image of m. tuberculous bacteria up close and sneeze droplets. The images and accompanying text concisely tell the story of how tuberculosis works.

Later sections detail how the Industrial Revolution contributed to TB's spread, crazy treatments that have been attempted over the years (including sewing ping pong balls inside patients' chests), scientific research by Robert Koch that led to legitimate treatments, TB in popular culture (the Bronte sisters made it glamorous), and the sanitorium movement that became popular in the United States for a time.

The book ends with a discussion of TB's growing resistance to drug treatment and current TB hotspots around the globe, where unsanitary prison conditions and outdated treatments fuel the disease. For now, we can only contain the disease by focusing on early detection and developing new drugs.

This was a fast, surprisingly entertaining read. Back matter includes a bibliography, source notes and index.

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