The White Plague

The White Plague, consumption or as it is more commonly known nowadays Tuberculosis was one of the biggest killers in the Victorian Era, actually probably one of the biggest killers of all time.

Estimated global tuberculosis deaths total 1 billion in the last two centuries.

“The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such) who have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three — fruit and ‘sweet-stuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one — filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.” Sketches by Boz (1836)

And dickens had far more to say about the poor and the conditions that caused this most dreadful or diseases. It wasn’t until 1865 that some understanding of how it spread strated to take root. Jean-Antoine Villemin, a military doctor showed that the disease could be passed from humans to cattle, and from cattle to rabbits. Current medical thinking held that each case of consumption spontaneously arose in those poor unfortunates who predisposed to it. It was shown that it was spread by micro organisms and this was demonstrated by Robert Koch conclusively that a bacterial infection caused TB.

If you caught it the chances of you surviving was not good, in fact only a 2 in 10 chance of surviving the disease and there were no cures.

Having no real cures people became desperate, one thing always leads to another and an outbreak of tuberculosis more thank likely caused the popularity in Laudanum as a cure all (it did relive the pain).

Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially fatal contagious disease that can affect almost any part of the body but is mainly an infection of the lungs. It is caused by a bacterial micro organism, the tubercle bacillus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although TB can be treated, cured, and can be prevented if persons at risk take certain drugs, scientists have never come close to wiping it out. Few diseases have caused so much distressing illness for centuries and claimed so many lives.

Stranger still there was a short period of time in the Victorian Era when the tuberculosis look, that of a peaky pale completion with frequent bouts fainting) was quite the fashion, I suppose not unlike the recent ‘Heroin Chic’. Stranger still some Victorian women went to great lengths to emulate the look, some going as far to take arsenic to pale the skin which of course was a great way of poisoning yourself!

The worry thing is that according to a National Health Service agency the White Plague is staging a comeback in London, where some neighbourhoods suffer infection rates found in African countries in which the disease is endemic. The number of cases surged 50 percent in the 10 years to 2009.

“You wouldn’t expect to see that, TB is one of the biggest public health problems we have.” Brian McCloskey, the Health Protection Agency’s.

Apparently although not proven the diseases has taken root in recent immigrants, addicts, homeless, the poor and destitute.

Makes you wonder whether we have actually learned anything in the last 150 years.