FAQ: Everything you need to know about LA's tuberculosis outbreak

TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Justine Gerardy

Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

A medical technician works at the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI) at Brewelskloof Hospital, on January 27, 2011.

Health officials are looking into what they're calling the largest outbreak of tuberculosis in a decade, centered in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row.

Should you be worried? Not necessarily. The area has seen worse, and the CDC will be sending a team to downtown L.A. to assist in locating and treating those who are infected.

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Still, it is alarming. Nearly 80 cases have been identified, and 11 people have died since 2007, most of them homeless who live in Skid Row and are more likely to have weakened immune systems.  The Los Angeles Times reports: 

"Scientists have recently linked the outbreak to one tuberculosis strain that is unique to Los Angeles, with a few isolated cases outside the area."

"'This is the largest outbreak in a decade,' said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. 'We are really putting all of our resources into this.'

"Health workers have identified about 4,650 people who probably were exposed and are trying to track them down for testing and treatment." 

So while there's no reason to panic, it's worth knowing how to avoid the disease. We have answers (with thanks to the Centers for Disease Control).

What exactly is tuberculosis (TB)?

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease and is caused by the bacterium "Mycobacterium tuberculosis." Infection usually occurs in the lungs, but the bacteria is capable of attacking other places such as the kidneys, the spine, and the brain. TB can be fatal if not treated.

What are the symptoms of TB?

The symptoms of TB are awfully similar to the ones that come with the flu. Fever, chills,  lack of appetite, weakness and fatigue, and a bad cough that last for three weeks or longer are among the less frightening symptoms. The more alarming signs of infection, however, include chest pain, weight loss and coughing up blood or sputum (a mixture of saliva and mucus).

How is TB spread?

The bacteria that causes TB is spread from person to person via the air. When someone who is infected with TB of the lungs or throat speaks, laughs, coughs, sneezes or sings, people nearby may be infected by breathing in the bacteria. 

Those with TB of the kidney, spine or brain usually cannot spread their infection.

Alarming, yes. But the CDC reports that one cannot be infected with TB by shaking hands, sharing food, touching linens or other surfaces, sharing a toothbrush or kissing. 

What is latent TB infection?

It is very possible for the TB bacteria to enter your body and lie dormant. It can either stay dormant for the rest of your life or reawaken and become active later. Those with latent TB will feel no symptoms and can't spread TB to others, but they may have positive test results and, as we mentioned earlier, can develop TB disease.

Who is at risk for catching TB?

Really, anyone who comes into contact with someone who has TB is at risk of infection. The risk of infection is higher for those who have very weak immune systems, such as the elderly and very young, and those with HIV.

Other conditions that increase one's risk of infection include:

  • Low body weight
  • Certain treatments for rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease
  • Head or neck cancers
  • Leukemia or Hodgkin's disease
  • Silicosis
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Severe kidney disease
  • Substance abuse.

What should you do if you think you may be infected with TB?

Contact your health care provider to see if you should be tested for TB. You should tell the physician or nurse when you spent time with a person who has TB. 

How do you get tested for TB?

You can be tested for infection in two ways: 

  1. The TB skin test or "TST," which involves being injected with a small dose tuberculin purified protein derivative (PPD) into the surface of the forearm. Someone given this test must return in 48 or 72 hours to have the site of injection examined for a test results
  2. The TB blood test, which measures how the immune system reacts to the introduction of the TB Bacteria. 

What is the treatment for TB?

Multiple types of medications are required when treating this disease, and treatment can last for six to nine months. 

Taking the prescribed treatment for its full duration is crucial in making sure the development of a drug resistant disease does not happen. In order to insure that, some treatment plans involve "directly observed therapy" in which the patient is observed to take his or her medication.

Can you be vaccinated against TB?

There is a vaccine for TB; however, it is often not recommended for use in the U.S. due to the low risk of TB infection. There have also been varied results from the vaccine when used against TB of the lungs, and it has been observed to interfere with TB tests. 

How can you protect yourself?

If you don't already, you should frequently and effectively wash your hands. Avoid being close to those who are coughing or sneezing, especially if you know they are infected with TB. If you think you've been infected, you should be tested. 

Is this FAQ helpful? Are there questions we haven't answered? Let us know in the comments. You can discuss L.A.'s current TB outbreak here or on KPCC's Facebook page.

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