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Making the best of time with TB

Today's entry is by Melissa Bell of the Post's Local Living section.

Over lunch with clients one day in December, media sales representative Christiaan Van Vuuren, 27, started to cough. It seemed perfectly normal at first, but the cough didn't stop. He coughed and coughed and then looked at his hand, which was covered in blood.

"The only time when people cough blood is when they've been shot in the stomach with an arrow," the Australian told me over the phone from his hospital room in Sydney. He laughed and said his only knowledge about medical emergencies had come from bad action movies.

Van Vuuren had not, in fact, been shot with an arrow. Rather, he had picked up multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

Before the cough, he was not really feeling sick. He had awakened in a cold sweat and felt a bit feverish, but chalked it up to a bit too much socializing.

For a man stricken with a disease that kills more than 1 million people each year, who has been stuck in isolation for more than seven weeks, Van Vuuren sounds remarkably happy -- and in some ways, he should be. He's made good use of his solitary confinement and now has one of the most viral videos on the Web.

After his first 10 days of isolation, Van Vuuren said he had finished every book, seen every DVD and exhausted all other forms of entertainment. He started fiddling around with the Garage Band program on his computer and decided to record a song for his friends: "I'm not sick, but I'm sick sick." They encouraged him to put it on YouTube. When the video attracted 1,500 views, he was amazed.

In early January, doctors released Van Vuuren from the hospital. Unluckily for him, but fortuitously for hilarious-bad-rap-video lovers worldwide, two weeks later, the doctors discovered Van Vuuren had not just a standard form of TB but the much more powerful strain that resists drug treatments. It is typically found in parts of the world where people aren't treated with sufficient antibiotics to fully kill the tuberculosis bacteria, which allows the germs to evolve into a resistant strain. The U.S. had only 86 documented cases of multidrug-resistant TB in 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Van Vuuren would have to go back into isolation for another six to eight weeks.

Back in the same room, he turned to his computer and created a new YouTube video. In "Life in Quarantine," Van Vuuren chats with a mug decorated with "tea-bag hair," dresses up like Wolverine and, to a catchy beat, raps, "Quarantine can make you go crazy, but it hasn't happened to me." He posted the video a week ago, and he's gotten more than 113,000 views and an outpouring of support from around the world on his Facebook fan page. (Neither video comports with The Washington Post's taste standards, so we're not supplying links here.)

Doctors think Van Vuuren picked up the multidrug-resistant TB four years ago while working in South Africa. The disease most likely lay dormant until a weakened immune system and a small lung infection he developed on vacation triggered an outbreak. He'll be on drug treatment therapy for at least two years.

Van Vuuren's TB tests are finally coming back negative, but he still has to stay in isolation until the final results prove he's no longer infectious, a process that could take a minimum of five more weeks -- enough time to produce a few more videos.

Follow Local Living writers on Twitter: @wposthome/local-living.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 4, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger , Infectious Disease , Social Media  
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Next: Is That Right? In 22 cases, FDA says "No, it's not!"

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