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Tuberculosis Roars Back With A Deadly Edge

Two weeks ago, 12-year-old Nokubheka's mother died from drug-resistant tuberculosis.

"I love singing and dancing to the song," Nokubheka says as she marches around in a hot pink skirt and sweatshirt. "When I'm dancing, I forget that my mother passed away."

Now the young girl from Swaziland has learned she has the same disease.

Nokubheka will have to take painful injections for months to stop the infection. She'll have to move away from her family to a hospital. And she'll miss two years of school.

The world has a new epidemic on its hands, and it's insidiously veiled as an old one.

Tuberculosis was once the top killer in the U.S. The so-called white plague caused about 25 percent of all deaths in Massachusetts and New York during the 19th century, some historians estimate.

Then antibiotics came along. TB cases in the U.S. steadily declined. In 2013, they reached an all-time low. Only 9,588 cases were reported.

But TB doesn't go down easily. In fact, the bacteria only get stronger.

Over the past few decades, the disease has quietly evolved resistance to the best medicines we have against it. Now there are dangerous forms of the disease that take years to treat and thousands of dollars to cure.

This multidrug-resistant TB can surface anyway, even the Midwest.

Last year, a small outbreak rocked the sleepy town of Sheboygan, Wis. The state spent millions of dollars to stamp out the outbreak and keep the drug-resistant bacteria from spreading.

Tonight PBS's Frontline travels to the epicenter of this rising epidemic, the southern African country of Swaziland, in the film "TB Silent Killer." Through the eyes of Nokubheka and two others fighting the disease, the documentary explores the toll drug-resistant TB takes on families and societies.

The film premieres at 10 p.m. EDT on PBS. We'll be tweeting live about drug-resistant TB with Frontline at @NPRGlobalHealth. We hope you can join us. Use #TBSilentKiller.

Shots will host an online discussion with the filmmaker, Jezza Neumann, Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. EDT. Look back here at Shots for the discussion. In the meantime, send us your thoughts and questions to ask Newman and other TB experts on the panel. We're at shots@npr.org.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.