Lung questions

Do you remember the BCG test?

It was 1973, the second year at secondary school and we queued outside a classroom waiting our turn to receive the Sterneedle test. It was a spring-loaded instrument with six needles arranged in a circle that was inserted into the inside of each person’s forearm. We joked and laughed as we each emerged from the room with a neat set of six holes in our skin.

The following week, the test was assessed. Everyone else had a negative result, I tested positive.

Letters came to my home. There was concern that I had suffered tuberculosis. A letter came summoning me for an X-ray examination in Wells. In memory, the X-ray was undertaken in a big blue van. Perhaps that is a piece of misremembering, perhaps it is true. The National Health Service had a Mass Miniature Radiography programme using vans to go out to communities to screen people for TB.

I remember standing against the X-ray machine, worried that I would get the wrong result for a second time. No-one talked openly about what might happen if it was discovered that I had tuberculosis, there seemed to be a veiled suggestion of hospitals and long-term treatments.

The X-ray proved to be negative, the threat of being sent away receded. The conclusion reached was that I had a natural immunity to TB. The source of the immunity was never fully explained. A suggestion was made that drinking unpasteurised milk on the farm as a child had led to an exposure to bovine TB, but it was never confirmed. Perhaps it was possible to be simply immune to an illness.

Escaping being sent away when it was found that I did not have tuberculosis, I did get sent away the following year when my asthma deteriorated and my absences from school became lengthy. The school to which I was sent on Dartmoor was austere, but probably a place of warmth and comfort compared with the descriptions I have heard of TB hospitals.

Five decades on from the close encounter with TB, I wonder now if the test result on that school day still has any relevance. Would it be possible that an immunity to tuberculosis, whether inherited or acquired through exposure to it, might have created a defence, if not a full immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus? Internet searches have given no hint of an answer. It would be intriguing to think that those six needles could retain importance so many years later

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