Tennessee, Shelby County take aggressive tuberculosis stance

9:01 am | November 26, 2012

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The state of Tennessee and Shelby County are taking an aggressive approach to diagnosing and fighting tuberculosis.

Shelby County leads the state with diagnosed cases of tuberculosis, which once was the leading cause of death in the United States.

The disease is caused by a bacterium that usually attacks the lungs, but can also strike the kidney, spine and brain. The highly-communicable illness can be cured if treated properly, but it can be fatal if not treated.

Last year, there were 49 tuberculosis cases in Shelby County and a total of 156 for the state, officials said. Second in line was Nashville, with 38 cases.

The Shelby County Health Department Tuberculosis Control Program has a $1.68 million annual budget, which includes an additional $300,400 received from the Tennessee Department of Health last month.

The county health department covers the entire cost to diagnose and treat the illness. The county requires that the patient be quarantined for two weeks and visited daily by a therapy worker who administers medicine and watches for side effects. The treatment period can go from six months to as long as three years, said Dr. Helen Morrow, the county health department’s health director.

Health workers must also conduct a contact investigation, which could involve finding as many as 150 people who interacted with the patient, were exposed to the disease, and need evaluation and possibly treatment, Morrow said.

State law requires that health care professionals who suspect tuberculosis in a patient report it to the county health department, which then takes over with testing and treatment.

“But it’s not uncommon for doctors to not have tuberculosis on their radar,” said Dr. Jon Warkentin, tuberculosis control officer and medical director of the TB Elimination Program with the Tennessee Department of Health. “And that’s not just a Memphis, issue, that’s a national issue.”

Tennessee’s aggressive approach to treating tuberculosis follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that’s not the norm in every state, where some tuberculosis programs struggle for adequate resources, Warkentin said.

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