National data again shows Alaska’s tuberculosis rates rank highest in US

DHSS says techniques to prevent spread, eliminate TB are similar to efforts against COVID-19
Published: Apr. 5, 2021 at 12:57 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control shows Alaska’s rate of tuberculosis – a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects the lungs – is again at the top of the national list, with 7.9 cases per 100,000 persons.

The data, from the CDC’s Division of Tuberculosis Elimination, shows Alaska reported the highest incidence per capita from 2019 to 2020, though the state only reported 58 cases total. By comparison, California reported the highest total number of cases over the reporting period, with 1,703.

Alaska’s rate also increased by .3%, according to the report. That’s compared to a downward trend identified nationally.

“We continue to be number one,” said Michelle Rothoff, a medical epidemiologist for the State of Alaska, of the tuberculosis case rates ranking. “The other thing that report told us that was kind of interesting is it showed that case rates dropped pretty precipitously in the U.S. by about 20%. And usually, over the past decade, TB case rates decrease by about 2% to 3% per year.”

The national rate, the report said, decreased by 19.9 percent; across the country, the average was 2.7 cases per 100,000 people. Nationally, 8,920 cases were reported.

From the 1930′s through the 1950′s, tuberculosis killed thousands of Alaskans, with rural Alaska Native communities hit especially hard by the disease. High rates currently found in the southwest and northern regions of the state, the Department of Health and Social Services said, are due in part to “lingering effects of high historic rates [...] Fully eliminating tuberculosis is also challenged by people living in close quarters.”

The department said as well that Alaska’s experience with tuberculosis demonstrates the importance of containing diseases to limit historic lingering.

“Once the number one cause of death in Alaska, TB rates have been lowered through contact tracing, medical treatment and isolation,” Rothoff noted, “but work remains to be done to eliminate this preventable, curable disease.”

Much like COVID-19, tuberculosis is a highly contagious, airborne disease. As such, mitigation and elimination efforts are also similar. DHSS said that today, testing and prevention are still the highest priorities to limited the spread of tuberculosis, which can be cured through readily-available medication.

“It is much better to prevent contagious, infectious diseases from getting a stronghold in a population than to have to treat and eliminate,” Rothoff said.

The Alaska TB Program, under the umbrella of DHSS, provides medication for people with active cases; helps to ensure that all of those with tuberculosis infection or disease are on appropriate regimens; assists with the monitoring and case management of people being treated; assists with contact tracing and exposure tracking; and provides consultation to providers, public health nurses, and the public, as well as education and outreach to partners throughout the state. You can learn more about the program here.

For more information about efforts surrounding tuberculosis mitigation and prevention in Alaska, including a video of the history of combating the disease, is also available on this website.

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