In Washington, and worldwide, TB cases have increased significantly.
In the state of Washiongton, tuberculosis cases are on the rise and the public is on high alert, afraid of its rapid spread, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The organization blamed disruptions in care during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, they say, caused many missed TB diagnoses.
“It’s been 20 years since we saw a cluster of TB cases like this,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, the state’s chief science officer. “The pandemic has likely contributed to the rise in cases and the outbreak in at least one correctional facility. Increased access to TB testing and treatment in the community is going to be key to getting tuberculosis cases under control.”
In the early stages of the coronavirus, the number of TB cases seemed to decrease significantly. However, Sheng Kwan-Gett has attributed this to underreporting. Moreover, “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 Health Department said. Tuberculosis, like COVID, can be transmitted through particles in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and the disease presents with similar symptoms, such as chest pain and coughing, fever, night sweats, and fatigue.
In the following year, 2021, cases increased sharply, and Washington reported nearly 200 cases, “a 22% increase from 2020.” Now, in 2022, 70 cases have already been reported and the calendar year is far from over.
Across the U.S., the number of reported TB cases also appeared to significantly decline at the beginning of the pandemic (in 2020) but “increased again in 2021,” according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study.
“The state’s Department of Corrections, Department of Health, and the CDC have come together to offer more testing,” explained MaryAnn Curl, MD, the chief medical officer for the Corrections Department. She added, “Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) identified a rise in cases in one of our facilities and immediately began working closely with the (other departments to find) ways to decrease the spread in the facility and out in the community. Testing of staff, and our incarcerated population at Stafford Creek Correction Center continues, which is how these cases were found. We’ll continue to communicate with staff, their incarcerated population and their families as appropriate.”
Those who are in communal living or shared spaces, in general, such as homeless camps and those incarcerated, are also more likely to become infected. Living in close quarters with someone who has TB is the quickest way for the disease to spread from person to person.
The number of TB cases worldwide is on the rise, and for “the first time in more than a decade, TB deaths increased to about 1.5 million,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s 2021 Global Tuberculosis Report.
Mayo Clinic shares that people with active tuberculosis “must take many types of medications for months to get rid of the infection and prevent antibiotic resistance.” However, individuals can also have inactive TB (or “latent TB”), which doesn’t have any symptoms and isn’t contagious. Many people with latent TB don’t realize they have the disease.
Washington’s Health Department stressed, overall, “Tuberculosis is preventable, treatable, and curable” if caught.