Why Does Rural Alabama Have So Many Tuberculosis Cases?

Although tuberculosis hasn’t been an epidemic in the United States for some time, public health officials have confirmed an outbreak of the disease in rural Alabama, according to Mobile, AL news station WKRG.

Officials from the Alabama Department of Public Health report that three people have died from tuberculosis in the region since 2011 and that one more person recently tested positive in Marion, a small town with roughly 3,600 residents.

Pam Barrett, the health department’s director of the Division of Tuberculosis Control, said that 27 people connected with Marion, AL, have tested positive for the disease since 2014. Of those, 21 are in Perry County.

Health officials have tested 1,058 residents, as of the end of January. Some 49 have latent infections and will receive preventative treatment, WKRG reported.

Because tuberculosis is contagious, it is vital for patients to get tested and treated as soon as possible if they suspect they may have the disease. Symptoms for TB, according to the Mayo Clinic, include coughing lasting three or more weeks and/or coughing up blood; chest pain from breathing or coughing; unintentional weight loss and/or loss of appetite; fatigue; fever; chills; and night sweats.

Exams have been paid for by the health department, as well as the follow-up appointments for results and recommended treatments.

Tests for TB include physical exams, blood and sputum tests, and X-rays or CT scans to find changes in patients’ lungs caused by the disease. Today’s X-rays can be taken at approximately 30 frames per second to give doctors fast and accurate imaging for a diagnosis.

Yet the struggle to get more people tested may be worse than health officials anticipate. The New York Times reported on the epidemic, stating that poverty and mistrust of medical professionals are keeping many rural Alabama residents sick.

The current outbreak is so widespread, in fact, that it is 100 times greater than that of the entire state and even worse than it is in many developing countries.

Poverty and limited access to healthcare also play a role in keeping many residents sick.

“There’s not a culture of care-seeking behavior unless you’re really sick,” Dr. R. Allen Perkins, a former president of the Alabama Rural Health Association, told the New York Times. “There’s not support for local medical care, so when something like this happens, you have a health delivery system that’s unprepared.”

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