It has attacked humans throughout recorded history and been called “the white plague” and “Captain of all these men of death.” From the 1600s through the 1800s it was responsible for a quarter of all deaths in Europe, with similar numbers in the U.S.
Like the novel coronavirus, tuberculosis often attacks the lungs, and it can spread through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Unlike the virus-caused COVID-19, tuberculosis is brought on by bacteria, and rather than the rapid spread we’ve witnessed in recent months, throughout history tuberculosis has spread slowly through families, generation to generation, down through the ages.
Originally thought to be hereditary, it earned the “white plague” nickname in the 1700s due to the paleness of those afflicted with it. In the 1800s in Connecticut, and elsewhere across New England, the unexplained condition known then as consumption fueled the folklore belief in vampires. The most famous vampire case in state history occurred in the 1840s and ’50s in Jewett City, a borough of Griswold. After the disease killed three members of the Ray family over a period of several years, a surviving brother started showing symptoms. He concluded that his dead brothers were now vampires and feasting on him. With the help of family and friends, he exhumed the bodies of both his brothers and burned them. This “treatment” was shocking, even at the time. “We seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian [sic],” stated the Norwich Weekly Courier. However, it is not the only vampire exhumation in Connecticut history. In 1990, archaeological evidence of another likely vampire exhumation was unearthed in Griswold and there are rumors of at least one other.
In 1882, German physician and scientist Robert Koch announced his discovery that tuberculosis was caused by bacteria. At that time, sanatoriums for the treatment of the condition were starting to be built. The first sanatorium opened in the U.S. in 1875 in Asheville, North Carolina. Connecticut opened Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield county sanatoriums in 1910 in Newington, Meriden and Shelton. Several others were built throughout the state including the Seaside Sanatorium in Waterford, a state-run facility for children with the disease. At these institutions, residents were encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible, sometimes sleeping outside even in the winter. While some of these treatments seem unorthodox by today’s standards, sanatoriums helped isolate those with the disease and decrease its spread within families.
In the 1940s, antibiotics provided a major breakthrough in treatment of tuberculosis, decreasing its spread here dramatically. In Connecticut last year, only 67 cases were reported, a rate of 1.9/100,000 residents, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Worldwide, however, the disease continues to haunt humanity. The World Health Organization reports that 1.5 million people died from the disease in 2018, and it remains one of the top 10 causes of death annually.
Today the disease is making headlines for entirely different reasons, as researchers believe a tuberculosis vaccine first used in 1921 could be used to fight SARS-CoV-2. Known as the BCG vaccine, short for bacille Calmette-Guérin, there is debate about its effectiveness overall — it has never been required in the U.S. — but it is thought to have off-target effects that make it effective against other conditions including leprosy. Researchers theorize that it may stimulate a part of the innate immune system, the body’s first line of defense against infection, which may also be particularly important in fighting this coronavirus.
Some countries where the vaccine is required are experiencing fewer coronavirus deaths than their neighbors where it’s not required. Ireland has fared significantly better during the pandemic than the United Kingdom, though it is not clear the vaccine is what accounts for those differences. Even if the BCG vaccine shows promise against the coronavirus, it’s unclear what level of protection someone given the vaccine years ago would still have today.
To answer these questions, clinical trials are underway in several countries. In the U.S., as of late April, Dr. Denise Faustman, director of immunobiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, was seeking institutional permission to start a trial in Boston. Whether it has any true efficacy against the coronavirus remains to be seen. If the vaccine does prove helpful, it would be another odd but unusually bright chapter in the long, strange history of tuberculosis.
A century ago, before the use of antibiotics, the most effective means of fighting tuberculosis was thought to be exposure to clean, fresh air and sunlight. Those with the means would seek relief in less urban places like the American West and South, while Connecticut’s poor were often placed in sanatoriums. Facilities popped up across the state: Cedarcrest Hospital in Newington, Undercliff Sanatorium in Meriden, Laurel Heights Sanatorium in Shelton, Uncas-on-Thames Hospital in Norwich, Wildwood Sanatorium in Hartford, Gaylord Farm Sanatorium in Wallingford, and two Seaside Sanatoriums, one in Niantic at the former White Beach Hotel, and the other in Waterford. Some of these buildings, including Waterford’s Seaside Sanatorium, still stand today. But all have tight restrictions, so do your research before trying to have a look.