The White Death: Tuberculosis's Unseen Reign of Terror

Harper Quill

Updated Wednesday, June 26, 2024 at 12:00 AM CDT

The white death has haunted humanity like no other disease, following us for thousands, maybe millions of years. In the last 200 years alone, it has killed a billion people – far more than all wars and natural disasters combined. Even today, it remains the infectious disease with the highest kill count. But what is this horrific disease? John Green reveals the chilling truth about Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB).

TB has been humanity's arch-enemy for centuries. In 1815, it caused one in four deaths in Britain. Right now, one in four humans alive are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis – you might be one of them. Despite its terrifying statistics, TB is seldom discussed in mainstream conversations. Why is that?

The answer lies in the nature of TB itself. Often called the perfect human predator, TB is highly infectious yet remains quiet most of the time, careful not to kill recklessly. It has perfectly adapted to evade the immune system, making it incredibly hard to eradicate.

When TB enters the body, it typically infiltrates through the airways and sets up home in the lungs. The lungs, a giant living cave system, are defended by billions of macrophages, powerful guard cells that hunt and kill intruders. However, the TB bacterium has its own cunning plan. It is the worst kind of parasite – an immune system parasite.

Macrophages grab their victims and trap them inside a phagosome, flooding it with acid to rip them to pieces. But TB’s thick, waxy coat makes it immune to these acids. Even worse, it captures and modifies the macrophage to be a perfect host, turning the body's own defenses against itself.

This chilling tale of the white death’s reign of terror is just the beginning. To uncover more about how TB continues to be a global threat and the efforts to combat it, watch the full video by John Green, made possible through a grant by Gates Ventures.

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