The “little flu” took the spotlight with a Usain-like bolt and conquered the planet in one (un)forgettable year. Signs are ominous it will keep its podium and headline spots through several seasons to come. Covid is the Sergei Bubka of the microbial Olympics—upping its record a notch at a time. On a parallel track and away from the fuss, an ancient shadowy marathoner is continuing to amass its morbid medallions—if death can be called medals, a macabre metaphor. Tuberculosis, aka TB, is a formidable ace of the long distance; a disease that has plagued humans for more than a millennium. Mycobacterium tuberculosis—the bacterium that causes TB—kills 1,200 people daily in India, says the World Health Organization.
The nation leads the global caseload of TB. Yet, it is something people try to avoid talking about. Why? Why is it not the fearsome disease that people dreaded three decades ago? Where has that wracking, back-bending, blood-spitting TB cough gone from our collective consciousness, from our films, from our pulp fiction? Why it’s not a trending topic on our Twitters and Facebooks? Wasn’t TB the chronic villain of our films of a certain vintage? Did you notice Devdas of Devdas didn’t drink himself to death? TB killed him. Poverty and TB were the incurable shadows that stalked Sanjeev Kumar in Parichay (1972)—a prophetic image symbolic of what this killer bacterium would become this century, “a poor man’s disease of the third world”. That answers why TB has gone under the radar, and not in a good way.