Bethel residents exposed to tuberculosis at 3 day religious event

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Alaska has seen high rates of tuberculosis throughout the last hundred years, dating back to the first half of the 20th century. Now in 2019 the disease is still present, but with antibiotics and better healthcare available the disease is now better managed.

“Historically our northern part of the state and our southwest part of the state have had the highest rates of tuberculosis. That really goes back to the high rates that we were seeing in the first half of the 20th century, where Alaska Native people experience extraordinary rates of TB and deaths,” said Donna Fearey, nurse practitioner and epidemiologist with the state of Alaska’s TB program.

The disease tuberculosis is also referred to as TB and is a form of bacteria that can be spread from one person to another through the air from a sneeze, a cough or even a song. When someone with pulmonary TB bacteria coughs, the bacteria is spread in the air in tiny water droplets that can remain in the air for several hours. Once a person has breathed in the TB bacteria, it can travel to the lungs where they collect and multiply. Fearey says those that are the most at risk are young children, elders and those with compromised immune system.

“A lot of our outbreaks we see are in individuals in longstanding, untreated TB infection that goes on to become TB disease, and so when you are sick with TB, you would have symptoms,” she said.

Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. As a result, two TB-related conditions exist, latent TB infection and TB disease. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal. She says for those who may have infectious TB, they have what they call a contact investigation.

“All suspected cases of TB or confirmed cases are reportable to the state TB program. We work very closely with our public health colleagues and health care providers across the state doing what we call Tb contact investigations,” said Fearey. “So anybody who has infectious TB we routinely what we call contact investigation. We interview the person where they work or where they spent a lot of time because, You know, you are not at risk if I see you in the park but if I spend a lot of time in a closed space like in a small home or in a small building that doesn’t get a lot of ventilation you are at risk to becoming infected.”

Last week the city of Bethel, Alaska had reported a case of TB at a religious event. There were roughly 100 people who attended the event that were potentially exposed to the disease. Alaska Public Health and Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation officials say the person attended all three days of the event.

“This investigation that is happening in Bethel, for us is a routine investigation,” said Fearey.

She says because there wasn’t a list of people who attended the event the best way for them to get information to the small community was to contact the local radio station and social media.

“To just let folks know that if they had attended this event to go get tested because we just want to make sure that anyone who could have been potentially exposed gets tested and that’s, that’s where that is happening in Bethel,” she said.

An official says Alaska has the highest rate of tuberculosis in the nation, but the state's strain is not resistant to medication and can be treated and cured.

The Center for Disease and Control estimates that roughly 13-million people in the U.S have reported cases of TB, and Globally that number rises with roughly a quarter of the world’s population reporting exposure to this disease. Fearey encourages all those who feel they may be at risk of TB to get tested.

For more information on Tuberculosis visit http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/tb.aspx