Tuberculosis is making an unfortunate comeback, with a drug-resistant strain ravaging the Asia-Pacific region. While Jo Chandler was in Papua New Guinea covering the outbreak for The Age, she caught the frequently deadly illness.
Sometime in those few days, somewhere, someone coughed or sneezed or sang or laughed, spraying a cloud of invisible Mycobacterium tuberculosis into the air, and I inhaled. By the time my ride out finally materialises on the tarmac and I click my heels for home, it seems I have a stowaway. Eighteen months later, in March 2013, I am diagnosed with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB). Let’s call it accidental immersion journalism.
My uninvited guest is wily and resourceful, not unlike folk I’ve met who, like him, were born and bred in the unforgiving bayous of PNG’s South Fly.
His DNA has evolved to remember and evade assaults from the pair of first-line, workhorse antibiotics that have worked so mightily to conquer TB in many parts of the world over decades – isoniazid and rifampicin. Until only a few years ago it was thought that only those existing TB patients who didn’t take their medicine – because they couldn’t access them, or because they refused or forgot them – were vulnerable to drug resistant strains. Now we know it spreads easily and invisibly in the air. My bug is a modern manifestation of an ancient plague that still has a few tricks up his sleeve.