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County tuberculosis rates remain steady amid statewide rise

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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While state numbers of tuberculosis cases saw a small increase this past year, cases in Mason County remain low.

During the past decade, the county has averaged just one active case of tuberculosis each year — and increases in surrounding counties don't seem to have any impact.

"We have an active tuberculosis case about once a year," said Diana Yu, health officer for Mason County Public Health. "Some years we don't have any, and some years we have two or three. Does that make it an epidemic? No."

In 2015, Mason County did not register any cases of tuberculosis, also known as TB.

However, Washington has seen a slight increase in the number of cases recorded this past year.

In 2015, the state's tuberculosis rate rose by 7 percentage points from the previous year; there were 208 cases in 2015, compared to 194 cases reported in 2014, according to the state Department of Health.

King County had the highest number of cases at 98; Snohomish was second with 30 cases in 2015.

However, Yu said this is just a blip on the radar.

"It used to be that there were thousands of TB cases for every 100,000 people in the country and in this state," she said. "Now, it's three cases per every 100,000."

The development of a tuberculosis vaccine and treatment in the 1950s helped to vastly decrease the number of cases of TB in the United States.

Tuberculosis bacteria spreads through the air when someone with the illness in their lungs or voice box coughs, sneezes or speaks, and another person breathes in the bacteria.

Yu said Mason County had two cases of tuberculosis this past year; however, both were not considered active cases because they were not transmittable.

One person had tuberculosis in his spine as a result of a bladder cancer treatment. The other person had an infection in his eye that was thought to be TB, but it could not be confirmed.

While Mason County numbers are not a concern, Yu said there is a slight reason to be concerned — tuberculosis has started to mutate to have a resistance to some of the drugs used to treat it.

Because the treatments for TB have not been updated in more than 60 years, the bacteria has grown stronger and some strains have morphed into "super-bugs," which make up many of the newer cases in Washington.

"I'm concerned about the future of tuberculosis in Washington state," said Scott Lindquist, communicable disease epidemiologist for the state department of health, in a news release. "Cases are becoming more complicated, requiring greater resources and skills in a time of decreased funding and increased global drug resistance."

Because the bacteria is a slow-moving bacteria that can take up to nine months to cure, Yu said that the bacteria has time to mutate and grow stronger if people don't finish taking their medication or take it sporadically.

Not everyone who gets the bacteria will become infected, Yu said. About one in 10 people who inhale the bacteria will become sick.

However, there's no way to tell who — or when — they'll become sick.

Usually, people with the bacteria in them will become sick after they have a lowered immune system, such as when they become older and begin to take medication that lower immunity.

"Some people will have TB in them, but not know," Yu said. "Then something happens, like a doctor prescribes them medication for arthritis, and the TB says, Yippee! We're going to wake up and dance around!'"

Yu said people are living longer, so the baby boomer generation who were exposed to TB in the 1940s and 1950s are beginning to become infected as they grow older.

While the number of tuberculosis cases is still low in the U.S. compared to where they were 60 or more years ago, Yu said the bacteria is still a prevalent problem in developing nations.

"We're going to have to get rid of TB everywhere before we can get rid of it in the U.S.," she said. "We need to focus on it, because we should be able to get rid of it."

Yu suggested that an updated vaccine and treatment process could help eradicate the disease completely.

Instead, people have been relying on a 60-year-old treatment that gets the job done for the most part, but doesn't work 100 percent of the time.

"We've been nickel and diming it," she said. "If we want to fight it, we need to invest."

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: April 7, 2016

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