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Fear, panic, and TDR-TB, the new disease

Today we're going to learn about Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (or TDR-TB), but first we're getting a history lesson.

Today we're going to learn about Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (or TDR-TB), but first we're getting a history lesson.

Back in the days of prehistory, in 2004 and 2005, there was a disease that sent every public health official in the world scurrying to come up with a preventative plan.

It was called H5N1, a bird influenza that had popped up in Asia and was quickly spreading around the world. Domestic poultry carried it, migrating birds carried it.

They died in large numbers, creating localized economic catastrophes for farmers. Sometimes they passed their viruses on to humans, who also had an alarming tendency to drop dead.

And then we forgot about it.

It hasn't really gone away, but bird vaccinations have reduced the number of outbreaks. On an informal scale of disease scares, H5N1 has dropped from "Holy $&*^!" down to "Huh? Wha?"

Before H5N1 got its time in the media spotlight, there was SARS, which managed to kill quite a few folks and was popular enough as a murderous bacillus to get a TV movie made about it.

After that there was the H1N1 pandemic which, while widespread, was fortunately not nearly as lethal as feared.

So now we get to tuberculosis. A hospital in India is reporting 12 cases of TB, which is resistant to every known treatment antibiotic. Other cases are likely present elsewhere in the country.

This is no surprise, because many poor people in India get sick, go to fake doctors and get the wrong course of treatment.

TB strains then survive getting blasted with a halfcourse of antibiotics and develop a resistance. This has been going on for years, and now at least one lucky strain has developed complete resistance and become TDR-TB.

A similar strain turned up in Iran about three years ago.

So get ready for the ride. This is the problem with reporters: we're human. So we get as panicky, irrational and hypochodriacal (is that a word?) about disease as anyone. One of my coworkers has pink eye, and I've been feeling itchy in my eyeball all day.

So we write about what worries us. We write about H5N1 and H1N1, we inflame one another with low-grade panic, and we spread it to others. Kind of like a disease outbreak, actually.

I caught a bad case of H5N1 paranoia a few years back. I was a few news cycles away from retreating to an underground bunker with bottled water, canned beans and a supply of air filtration masks.

But, like a cold, the paranoia passes and we develop a bit of an immunity to it.

Unfortunately, neither the paranoid, overblown panic nor the blasé attitude that follows are really the right response.

TDR-TB is not going to kick your door down, steal your stuff and eat your kids. People might get sick. Some of them might die. But fullon panic is not a good plan.

The real danger is not that we'll do too much during the panic stage, but that we'll do too little later.

TDR-TB will make the front pages when (always when) it first arrives in Canada.

But it won't turn into The Stand, and so it will slip to page 3, and then to the health supplement, and then only a few dedicated bloggers will care.

But TDR-TB probably won't be gone. It will still kill people, here and there, and lack of attention won't help stop new infections.

We need to find a healthy balance, where we care enough to prepare our health systems, to educate the public, but without being overwhelmed by fear.

Matthew Claxton writes for the Langley Advance.

His blog is http: //tinyurl. com/7mwo2qj at www.langleyadvance.com.

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