Oct 12, 2011 11:42 PM by Ariel Wesler

Local health officials warn about TB outbreak

There is concern tonight about the latest outbreak of tuberculosis cases in Santa Barbara County.

County health officials say there have been 17 confirmed cases this year. 14 of them are in northern Santa Barbara County. There were 33 cases last year and that was the highest in recent history.

Santa Barbara County is considered a moderate risk county compared to the rest of the state. Public health officials say TB is treatable but many people may not know they are infected. The disease can often lie dorminant for years inside your body and suddenly become active.

In the 1920s, TB was the top killer in the United States. While the World Health Organization says the number of cases has dropped for the first time, public health officials are concerned about this most recent outbreak.

"Every single contact that lives in the home is investigated. We do blood work. We do chest X-rays. We want to make sure that they don't have active tuberculosis," said Dr. Charity Thoman, Santa Barbara County's Director of Disease Control.

If they do have an active case, the person is quarantined anywhere from two weeks to two years, until they're no longer contagious.

"We actually do have the authority to use legal means to detain them," Thoman said.

In 2004, a 19-year-old Santa Maria farmworker was thrown in jail after he refused to take his tuberculosis medication and the county was thrown in the national spotlight. The man later died in a car accident, but the county says his tuberculosis lives on.

Health officials say he has infected at least 56 people and they say it's possible some of this year's cases are directly linked to him.

The disease travels through the air and is highly contagious, especially for those living in close quarters. Classic symptoms include chronic coughing, sudden weight loss, night sweats, and coughing up blood.

About 3 million people in California carry TB, and 10 percent of them are expected to show symptoms.

"Those cases might not be active today or tomorrow, but maybe in two years, which means that the job of the public health department is to be there when they become active to help follow them through their treatment," Thoman said.

More than half of the cases in Santa Barbara County in the past three years have been in the Hispanic community, those born outside the U.S. and the unemployed, but so far, no one has died.

With a growing number of immigrants in Santa Maria, there's is also a growing risk for the disease. Many homes in the city have multiple families living under one roof. Some have also voiced concerns about health risks from illegal immigration. People who come here legally must be screened for TB, but there is no way to screen the undocumented workers who cross our borders every year.

San Luis Obispo County is considered low risk with an average of two to four active cases per year.


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