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Evidence of TB Found in 500,000-Year-Old Fossil

Finding contradicts belief that disease only emerged several thousands years ago

FRIDAY, Dec. 7 (HealthDay News) -- The oldest evidence of tuberculosis has been discovered in a 500,000-year-old human fossil from Turkey, a finding that contradicts the widely held belief that the disease emerged only several thousand years ago, according to a team of international researchers.

The discovery, made during investigation of the new specimen of the human species Homo erectus, lends support to the theory that dark-skinned people who migrated northward from low, tropical latitudes produced less vitamin D, which can have a negative effect on the immune system and the skeleton.

People with dark skin produce less vitamin D because the skin pigment blocks ultraviolet light from the sun.

"The production of vitamin D in the skin serves as one of the body's first lines of defense against a whole host of infections and diseases. Vitamin D deficiencies are implicated in hypertension, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer," John Kappelman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the international team, said in a prepared statement.

This specimen, believed to be a male, had a series of small lesions etched into the bone of the cranium. The shape and the location of the lesions are characteristic of a form of TB that attacks the lining of the brain.

The findings are published in the Dec. 7 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Before antibiotics were available, doctors prescribed plenty of sunshine and fresh air for TB patients.

"No one knew why sunshine was integral to the treatment, but it worked. Recent research suggests the flush of ultraviolet radiation jump-started the patients' immune systems by increasing the production of vitamin D, which helped to cure the disease," Kappelman said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about tuberculosis.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Texas at Austin, news release, Dec. 7, 2007

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