An Invisible Plague: the Growing Threat of Tuberculosis

A SkepTalk by Dr. Lauren Popov on 13 April 2017

Dr. Popov’s cheerful voice contrasted strangely with the horror of tuberculosis; indeed, she commented on that herself. However, her upbeat delivery and highly informative details kept me and the rest of the audience captivated throughout her presentation.

She began by pointing out that:

  • Although the ebola virus outbreak that began in 2014 in West Africa killed about 9,000 people, a similar number of people die from tuberculosis every 44 hours
  • One-third of the world’s population is already infected
  • About 30,000 people become infected every day
  • Tuberculosis is strongly associated with poverty
  • It disperses through the air from coughing sufferers to infect others
  • Strains of tuberculosis continue to arise that are resistant to antibiotics
  • Most infected people remain asymptomatic for years

Dr. Popov hopes to understand how tuberculosis bacteria manage to avoid destruction by our disease-fighting macrophage cells. In fact, the bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, live and multiply within our macrophages. Conducting her research on tuberculosis is both difficult and dangerous.

  • Tuberculosis bacteria grow and replicate very slowly which can make the simplest experiment last many months
  • Inhalation of a single bacterium can lead to the full-blown disease

Because of the dangers of experimenting with M. tuberculosis, Dr. Popov clothes herself in elaborate garments resembling a spacesuit. A backpack constantly blows filtered air into the suit to prevent an airborne bacterium from entering. Large fans keep the entire laboratory at negative pressure so that no air escapes except through super-fine filters. These necessary measures result in high costs for her research. Acquiring sufficient funding to continue concerns Dr. Popov, especially in this era when science is afforded such a low priority by our federal government.