The Daily Heller: Double Crossing A Disease

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The bacteria that causes tuberculosis (or consumption) was once the scourge that COVID-19 is today. Indeed, for a disease that can be cured through a vaccine and other antibiotics, it is still active throughout the world and can infect a body through airborne contact (including spit). TB remains one of the top 10 causes of death in the world.

TB also has a logo. The double cross (above) has various meanings; it was a symbol of French patriotism, and a sign representing the war against tyranny—the tyranny of a killer respiratory disease, in this case. Known as the Cross of Lorraine, it consists of one vertical and two horizontal bars. In most renditions, the horizontal bars are “graded,” with the upper bar being the shorter, though variations with the bars of equal length have also appeared.

It is prominent as the red cross of the American Lung Association (and was originally suggested in 1902 by Paris physician Gilbert Sersiron as the symbol of the aggressive “crusade” against TB) and related organizations throughout the world. In the United States using the stamps was the idea of Emily Bissell, a fundraiser for the American Red Cross. Bissell got the idea for a sale of Christmas Seals from an article written by a Danish-American investigative reporter, photojournalist and social worker Jacob Riis. The cross is familiar for its ubiquity on the tuberculosis Christmas seals, among the most well known of the combative identities for any disease.

Poster by Joseph Binder

Poster by Earnest Hamlin Baker

Posters have long been used to make the public aware of the disease and its countermeasures. About one quarter of the world’s population has latent TB, which means they have been infected by the bacteria but are not (yet) ill with the it, and cannot transmit it. “Tuberculosis is preventable and curable” yet the risks are significant.

People infected with the bacteria have a 5–15% lifetime risk of falling ill. Those with compromised immune systems, including people living with HIV, malnutrition or diabetes, or those who use tobacco, have a higher risk of falling ill.

When a person develops active TB, the symptoms (such as cough, fever, night sweats or weight loss – similar to COVID-19) may be mild for many months, leading to delays in seeking care, and results in transmission of the bacteria to others. People with active TB can infect 5–15 other people through close contact over the course of a year. Without proper treatment, 45% of HIV-negative people with TB die—and nearly all HIV-positive people with the disease die.

Read more about posters and the disease by Anna Talley and see how dataviz has been used to chart TB by me both at Design Observer.