BBC Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelbys fatal TB diagnosis symptoms and survival rate


In the final series of smash-hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders, which is set in the 1920s/30s, main character Tommy Shelby's family has been plagued by tuberculosis.

The heartbroken dad lost daughter Ruby to the disease, and in the most recent episode Tommy, who is played by Cillian Murphy, was informed by his doctor that he has tuberculoma in his brain stem.

This was caused by close contact with tuberculosis, and is a non-cancerous growth.

The doctor informed Tommy that it is inoperable as "any attempt to remove it would result in trauma and brain haemorrhage." He continued, "the rate of physical and mental deterioration will increase," before informing the gang leader that he had 12-18 months to live.

The TV show is fictional (although based loosely on a real gang with the same name as its title), but the disease that may cause Tommy's death is very much real.

In the past, TB caused 1 in 8 of all UK deaths, but now – with better research and improved living conditions – around 350 people per year lose their lives to the disease.

According to the NHS, approximately 7000 people are newly diagnosed in the UK each year, which accounts to just over one person in every 10,000 of the population.

It is also still a major disease across the world. In 2005, more deaths occurred from TB than at any time in history – approximately 8000 per day.

What is tuberculosis?

TB is a serious but curable disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. While it most often is within the lungs, it can also affect other parts of the body such as the lymph glands, bones, joints and kidneys.

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It is spread through an infectious person sneezing or coughing into the air, but not everybody who has it is capable of passing it on, and luckily it's not simple to transfer.

The NHS states, "TB is quite difficult to catch and usually requires prolonged or repeated contact with a person with infectious TB, such as living in the same household. Even then, not everyone who is infected with the bacteria causing TB will develop TB disease.

"In most healthy people, the body's natural defence against infection and illness (the immune system) kills the bacteria and there are no symptoms."

What are the symptoms?

The NHS lists the following symptoms:

  • a persistent cough that lasts more than 3 weeks and usually brings up phlegm, which may be bloody
  • weight loss
  • night sweats
  • high temperature
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • swellings in the neck

How is TB treated?

If caught and treated, TB can now almost always be cured. Antibiotics are usually taken for around six months.

Although, you don't need to isolate, the NHS advises taking precautions such as staying away from work, covering the mouth when coughing and opening windows.

Is there a vaccine?

The BCG vaccine offers protection, and is recommended to anyone under 35 who are considered at risk as well as NHS employees and healthcare workers.

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