Tuberculosis cases are increasing in Washington, which has put public health officials on “heightened alert,” according to a recent announcement from the Washington State Department of Health.
Widespread disruptions in health care and missed tuberculosis diagnoses during the COVID-19 pandemic have likely added to the increase – both locally and globally.
“It’s been 20 years since we saw a cluster of TB cases like this,” Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, the state’s chief science officer, said in the announcement.
“The pandemic has likely contributed to the rise in cases and the outbreak in at least one correctional facility,” he said. “Increased access to TB testing and treatment in the community is going to be key to getting TB under control.”
Case numbers appeared to fall in Washington during the first year of the pandemic, possibly due to less reporting and missed diagnoses. But in 2021, cases rose quickly. The state reported 199 cases, marking a 22% increase from 2020.
So far this year, 70 cases have been reported, including 17 new cases that all have connections with each other and several state prisons.
The state’s Department of Corrections, Department of Health, and the CDC are working together on testing and decreasing spread, MaryAnn Curl, MD, the chief medical officer for the Corrections Department, said in the statement.
Tuberculosis cases are increasing worldwide. For the first time in more than a decade, TB deaths increased to about 1.5 million, according to the World Health Organization’s 2021 Global Tuberculosis Report.
Across the U.S., the number of reported TB cases significantly declined at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 but increased again in 2021, according to a recent CDC study.
The Kansas Department of Health also reported an outbreak of TB cases in March, according to USA Today .
At the beginning of the pandemic, some people with TB may have been diagnosed with COVID-19 because both are infectious diseases that attack the lungs and have similar symptoms, the Washington Health Department said.
Like COVID-19, tuberculosis can spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. But unlike COVID-19, TB typically requires that you have prolonged exposure to become infected.
Symptoms of tuberculosis can include chest pain and coughing, with or without blood, as well as fever, night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue.
Tuberculosis is preventable, treatable, and curable, the Washington Health Department said. Those who travel to countries where TB is more common face higher risks for exposure, as well as those who live or work in settings where TB may spread, such as homeless shelters, prisons, jails, and nursing homes.
People can develop inactive TB, also called latent TB, which doesn’t have any symptoms and isn’t contagious. If people with inactive TB don’t get quick diagnosis or treatment, the infection can become active TB and cause symptoms. State health officials estimated that about 200,000 people in Washington have inactive TB.
Tuberculosis treatment can take a minimum of 6 months, and if it’s not followed carefully, symptoms can become more severe, the Health Department said. Incomplete treatment can also contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis.
Washington State Department of Health: “Tuberculosis cases on the rise globally and in Washington state.”
World Health Organization: “Global Tuberculosis Report 2021.”
CDC: “Tuberculosis – United States, 2021.”
USA Today: “Tuberculosis cases rise in Washington, leading to the state’s largest outbreak in 20 years.”
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