Alaska TB rate dips but still among the U.S. highest

Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Creative Commons BY 2.0)
The state Department of Health said 57 cases of tuberculosis were reported in Alaska in 2016. That’s a moderate decrease from the prior year, but Alaska continues to have among the highest rates of tuberculosis in the United States, more than double the national average.

Anchorage Medical Officer Bruce Chandler said the high rate is to be expected, given Alaska’s history of the disease.

“We continue to see cases crop up both in rural Alaska and in Anchorage,” Chandler said, “Primarily in the Alaska Native population where there was so much tuberculosis in the last century and a half or two.”

The infection can lie dormant and harmless in the lungs for decades, often an entire lifetime. If it becomes active, an early symptom is typically a persistent cough. Antibiotics can cure the disease, and Chandler said keeping Alaska’s TB rate under control requires a lot of work behind the scenes.

A problem for “a long time to come”

“Public health nurses, community health aides and DOT aides are out there day in and day in and day out finding cases and treating these people,“ Chandler said.

DOT aides, or Directly Observed Therapy aides, ensure patients take the full course of antibiotics. Chandler said their diligence helps prevent the spread of drug-resistant TB.

“Right now we don’t have the tools to totally eradicate TB,” Chandler said. “This is not a problem that’s going to go away. It’s something to be of concern for a long time to come.”

TB rates are highest in Southwest Alaska. The rate in the Northern region has dropped in recent years but remains higher than the Alaska average.

Worldwide, about one-third of the population has latent TB.

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Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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