Tuberculosis and the Vampire Myth

Bella Lugosi in Dracula, 1931, http://www.fact.co.uk/whats-on/dracula-1931.

Long before Aeras and its partners fought the tuberculosis epidemic through vaccine research and development, another tactic was more popular: vampire hunting.

The connection between vampires and tuberculosis, or “consumption” as it was then known, originated in Eastern Europe but was especially common in 19th century New England.  When people died from consumption and other members of their household soon sickened as well, it was believed that the dead family member was visiting the house at night as a vampire and slowly sucking their lives away. Because tuberculosis patients were slowly being “consumed” by the disease, it was assumed that vampires were feeding off of their blood.

If multiple family members began to fall ill after a consumption death and vampirism was expected, communities took a nontraditional approach to treating the disease, beginning with exhuming the body and removing its heart. If the heart contained “fresh” blood (an effect of decomposition, but believed to be blood the vampire had sucked out of the living), the heart would be burned and the ashes fed to sick family members as a cure, or a stake would be driven through the heart, a practice still associated with vampire myths today.

Symptoms of tuberculosis and the appearance of a decomposing body also contributed to the connection between the illness and the vampire myth. Common tuberculosis symptoms, including red, swollen, light-sensitive eyes, pale skin, low body heat, a weak heartbeat, and coughing up blood, as well the breakdown of lung tissue during and after death from tuberculosis, which caused the lips of corpses to appear bloody, all aligned with common beliefs about vampires.

Evidence sustains the connection between tuberculosis and vampire beliefs: of 12 reported vampire incidents in 18th-19th century New England, the “vampire” and its relatives reportedly died of consumption in 11 of the cases. The poor nutrition and unsanitary and crowded living conditions in New England during this time period would also have provided an ideal environment for the transmission of the disease.

Tuberculosis diagnosis, treatment, and prevention options have luckily come a long way since the vampire-hunting days of the disease. While traditional antibiotics are becoming less effective in the face of multi-drug-resistant and extensively-drug-resistant tuberculosis, a robust global pipeline of tuberculosis vaccine candidates will hopefully soon mean that tuberculosis, like the belief in vampires causing consumption, will be a thing of the past.