Ancient Disease, Modern Epidemiology: A Century of Progress in Understanding and Fighting Tuberculosis

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Abstract

A century's worth of efforts to better understand the epidemiology of tuberculosis (TB) and to develop new vaccines, drugs, preventive interventions, and case-finding approaches have provided important insights and helped to advance the field of epidemiology as a whole. Wade Hampton Frost developed methods for cohort analysis that formed the early basis for adjustment of confounding variables. The streptomycin trial in the United Kingdom in the 1940s introduced random allocation for participants to either the treatment or control group, ensuring blinded treatment assignment and comparable treatment groups, which is now a key element in randomized clinical trials. Research into the bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine demonstrated the importance of comparative analyses, potential difficulties in generalizability to populations not under study, and the role of meta-analysis for discrepant data—approaches now strongly recommended prior to implementing any novel public health intervention. George Comstock's work on preventive therapy for TB demonstrated the use of epidemiologic methods to evaluate interventions on a population level. Finally, studies from the Consortium to Respond Effectively to the AIDS/TB Epidemic focused on the evaluation of real-world effectiveness and of targeting of high-risk subpopulations. In this article, we discuss how TB research in each of these domains has helped to advance epidemiologic thinking and methodology over the past 100 years.

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