Alaskan doctors battling high TB rates
Alaska currently has the highest rate of TB in the United States, more than double the national average. Often times, cases are reported in remote areas that are difficult to treat and among Native American populations that have no natural immunity to the infection, according to AlaskaPublic.org.
Dr. Michael Cooper, once a family practitioner, now manages Alaska's infectious diseases program. Cooper said he spends at least half of his time dealing with tuberculosis. He admits that, as a doctor practicing in a rural community, he often had patients that complained of TB-like symptoms, but that TB was rarely on his mind.
"And as I look back now I go through these patients some nights and think, that patient could have had TB and why didn't I at least do this? Why wasn't I even aware of it?" Cooper said, AlaskaPublic.com reports.
Cooper now uses his position to educate physicians and nurses in Alaska about the illness. He said his program includes understanding why TB rates in Alaska are so high.
"We experienced probably the highest rates of TB back in the early 20th century found anywhere in the world at the time," Cooper said, according to AlaskaPublic.org. "So if you just imagine a nice cold winter and a packed house full of people. And one person having picked up this brand new disease that they have no immunity against. And then spreading it. It just can spread like wildfire."
A new treatment plan that is shorter and easier recently became available, and Cooper hopes the new drugs will lead to a decline in TB cases.
Cooper said that new rapid tests can detect the disease within 24 hours. In the past, it could take up to six weeks. Every new TB case in the state is being genotyped and treatments will be able to be targeted for different strains.
"The impact today is not nearly the scale as it was 50, 60 or 70 years ago in Alaska," Cooper said, AlaskaPublic.org reports. "But it's still being felt and the threat is always there that this little cluster and this little villages which we rush out and contain and get people on drugs and we do the investigation, if that doesn't happen quickly enough, if that doesn't happen thoroughly enough. It still has the potential to turn into a big infection very quickly."