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Letter from the editor | 146

The naked, literal disease

About two decades ago, we were quite content to imagine that TB was a disease that went hand-in-hand with human history, became the great disease of the 19th century in both concrete and metaphoric terms, extended its seriousness into the first half of the 20th century, and then joined the ranks of scourges overcome – thanks to the creation of a culture that invests in the human being that we know and that we are. The creation I am referring to in this case is the scientific knowledge that was transformed into the antibiotics disseminated after WWII and that have since, along with other products and factors, deeply changed health care and potential human life expectancy. Or knowledge that produced a vaccine such as the BCG, compulsory to protect the frail newborns of our species from the terrifying humors of the bacillus identified by Dr. Robert Koch in 1882.

Of course, once in a while, from the sixties to the nineties, we heard about someone who had caught TB, a disease underscored by a powerful social stigma, but we were ready to trust in the power of penicillin and the like and to take refuge in the assurance that the cases that one heard about were merely an exception and never the rule. Thus, for many years, we looked upon TB as having a primarily esthetic, philosophical and vertiginous nature, as put forth by Thomas Mann, for instance, in his extraordinary book The Magic Mountain, in which the disease examined at Davos is also a metaphor for an insidious evil that confronts man with the mystery of his very self, with his miseries and his grandeur, his limits and his capacity to transcend, whether this illness was corroding the viscera of a frail and finite body or rocking the entrails of a society in transformation. We could also take the poetic path of courage put forth by Manuel Bandeira in his direct and bloody struggle with the disease that threatened to kill him, or of the dramas of Dinah Silveira de Queiroz in the town of Campos do Jordão, [a Brazilian mountain resort and formerly a center of TB sanatoriums], in her sensitive work, Floradas na Serra. Regardless of the choice, TB still had an unequivocal literary dimension for my generation and other recent ones .

Aids changed this. Today, far from being literary, TB crudely presents itself as a disease. Every year, its bacillus attacks the lungs of nine million people worldwide, causing one of them to die every 15 seconds. In Brazil, the figure is 100 thousand cases, with 5 thousand deaths a year. It is true that for the last 45 years no new TB drugs have been created and that increasingly resistant strains of the bacillus pose a threat on the horizon. However – and this is the fundamental piece of information – if TB is curable, why is it becoming a scourge yet again, and in Brazil as well? This is what our special editor Carlos Fioravanti’s excellent report is about, starting on page 18. It adds substantially to the discussions of this disease, which has gained a special day to reflect on it: the 24th of March.

On the humanities pages, this edition offers another significant contribution, well grounded in research, on the debate of issues that are essential to defining the society that we would like to be and that we are building in Brazil. It is a lovely article by special editor Fabrício Marques (page 94) on the results, so far, of the affirmative action programs for students from government schools or socially underprivileged ethnic groups to enter Brazil’s universities. The data is surprising and well worth checking out.

There is much more to discover in this issue, among other issues the beauty of the pages designed by our art editor, Mayumi Okuyama (for instance, pages 69 to 73). But I would like to close with a recommendation to pay attention to the first of the special inserts about the talks and debates that Pesquisa FAPESP is organizing within the “Genome Revolution” exhibition, which can be visited up to July 13 at the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo and that will then be taken to other Brazilian cities. The exhibition, which was brought from New York’s Museum of Natural History by the Sangari institute, has been complemented with some very Brazilian additions and is delighting the public. We hope that the conferences and discussions held concurrently with it may help FAPESP and this magazine to add to it consistently, in order to expand society’s contact with scientific themes.