TB: The Real Risks

A discussion is taking place among health professionals about the state of tuberculosis around the world. Tuberculosis is already an epidemic in Africa and health officials are concerned it could rapidly spread. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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The rate of tuberculosis in the Houston area, and most of the U.S., has remained steady for several years. Dr. Charles Wallace is with the Texas Department of State Health Services. He says in 1985 there was a huge resurgence of TB because it was largely ignored at the community health and funding levels and he's concerned the same thing could happen again.

"And we're now being faced with the challenge of how do we deal with this disease and combat it in a way that we once again get it to a point that we can deal with it from a public health perspective. I challenge everyone in our communities to be aware that tuberculosis is still a major public health problem. We cannot turn our backs on it or turn a blind eye to this particular disease because it will be with us as long as we continue to neglect it."

It's estimated one-third of the world's population carries the latent form of TB. And because it's an airborne disease, it spreads easily. U.S. Congressman Gene Green says TB isn't the illness it once was, but it shouldn't be ignored.

"I have a long experience with tuberculosis. Growing up in Houston, my uncle came back from World War II with tuberculosis. And I remember as a very small child just being able to see him through the windows because tuberculosis in the '40s and '50s was such a terrible illness. Well we are a victim of our own success, we actually dealt with it. While most people view tuberculosis as a disease of the last generation, it's not. It's our current generation."

Green is filing a bill to authorize and designate additional TB funding. The bill would give the CDC greater ability to expand research, clinical trials and treatment of the disease, including the possibility of a TB vaccine. Dr. Michael Winters is a volunteer with the Results Advocacy Group.

"TB anywhere is TB here because it's airborne. You can walk into a room that somebody coughed in five minutes ago, you don't even have actual contact with that person, and now you have TB. And if it's the extreme drug-resistant form then that's what you have. So it's not using these basic medications that we've had for the last 40 years, it's now there's very few treatments that you can have. So that's the potential of the problem."

Last year in the City of Houston, 291 cases of TB were reported, nine of those people died of the disease. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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