Thursday, May 23, 2013
Alaska: Highest Rates of Tuberculosis in U.S.
The infectious disease is highly contagious and if untreated, can be deadly.
Rates of tuberculosis in Alaska are among the highest in the United States, and perhaps equally alarming is that most people infected with the disease don't even know they have it.
Plain and simple: leaving the disease untreated could result in death.
TB is highly contagious and public health officials are trying to educate Alaskans with the hope that they will recognize the symptoms before exposing the disease to others.
“TB is a very big problem in Alaska,” said Dr. Michael Cooper, head of the State of Alaska’s Infectious Disease program.
“Untreated, it has a very high mortality rate. A lot of those people will succumb to that disease. If the TB disease grows in their lungs, they could be spreading it out through simply coughing or sneezing,” said Wendy Walters, program manager for Disease Prevention and Control for the Municipality of Anchorage.
Cooper said there are people walking around Alaska with latent tuberculosis who are completely unaware that they have it.
Tuberculosis is 100 percent treatable. The Municipality of Anchorage even provides the necessary drugs free of charge, including visits, if someone is diagnosed with TB. The treatment of tuberculosis is a lengthy process that can take up to two years to complete.
“To treat one straightforward case of active TB disease, it requires over 50 visits for medication administration over the course of six months,” said Cooper.
“We try to get in and hit it hard, so to speak, with drug therapy [and] with monitoring,” Walters explained.
The battle to control TB is challenging both city and state officials who are endeavoring to educate Alaskans. Part of the effort includes conducting TB screenings.
“Every sweep, it seems, whether it’s two different villages or the city of Anchorage, we will frequently turn up people,” said Cooper.
“We're looking at symptoms that have hung around for two, maybe three weeks or even longer and there is no other reasonable explanation for them,” said Walters.
It’s an aggressive tactic that is so far proving to be effective, providing that people are willing to cooperate.
“Treatment is not fun...it’s not easy. It takes a very long time but it’s very doable,” said Cooper.
While the disease affects both young and old and those of all races, Alaska Natives, Asians, and Pacific Islanders are at a higher risk of being infected because of the isolated areas they may come from like a village or foreign country that doesn't have medications to treat it.