State battles new tuberculosis outbreaks

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Public health officials are battling a tuberculosis outbreak in Southwest Alaska that they're calling the largest in six years. Authorities in Anchorage also are fighting what they say is a contained outbreak of the disease.

Both outbreaks are under control, state officials said.

The Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. has identified 21 active cases of tuberculosis among the residents of several villages since April. Those include nine adults and 12 children. Another 56 people have tested positive for exposure to the bacteria, meaning they've been infected although they show no symptoms.

''We're taking this very seriously,'' said Christine DeCourtney, the agency's director of planning and communication. ''We've alerted all our health aides in the villages.''

Twenty people have been diagnosed with the disease in Anchorage since the first of the year. That compares with 14 cases last year and 23 in 1998. Nine are from a single family and many of the others are people who were exposed to that family, officials said.

All of the diagnosed patients are being treated for the disease.

In Southwest Alaska, anyone diagnosed or showing positive for exposure were flown to Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham for chest X-rays and are to begin a long drug treatment regimen,

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection spread through the air, and it spreads easily among people living in close quarters. Infection causes sweats, weight loss, fevers and other symptoms of the common cold.

The disease most commonly infects the lungs before spreading to other internal organs, the spine or the lymph nodes of the neck.

The disease can be fatal if left untreated.

Tuberculosis is a worldwide health scourge that once ran rampant across rural Alaska, especially among Natives.

Medical historians believe the disease existed among Natives long before settlers arrived. But it's also generally recognized that explorers and settlers helped infect the population. Tuberculosis was Alaska's leading cause of death in the first half of the 20th century.

Health officials worldwide once believed tuberculosis would be eradicated by the end of the last century. But during the early 1980s, the spread of HIV and the damage it does to immune systems brought tuberculosis back, making it again a national and international concern, said Beverly Wooley, division manager of Anchorage's community health service.

Experts believe about a third of the world's population carries the disease.

Over the past five years, 373 cases of active tuberculosis have been recorded in Alaska, said Dr. Beth Funk, head of the state's infectious disease program.

Roughly 40 percent to 45 percent of those cases occurred in Anchorage, where the rate of tuberculosis per capita is on par with that of the rest of the nation.

But certain areas of rural Alaska have TB rates higher than the national average.

Because of the high rates of infection, many schoolchildren in rural Alaska undergo TB testing every year, unlike urban Alaska school kids who are tested once in kindergarten and again in seventh grade.

''TB remains a public health concern, and we need to recognize that,'' Wooley told the Anchorage Daily News.

''The only reason we haven't returned to the epidemics of the '50s is because of the public health system we've got now and the diligence of public health nurses.''

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