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TB Isn't a Disease of the Distant Past


     Tuberculosis. A scary word to those who can remember when it was a problem in this country. My aunt lost her mother and six siblings to the disease in the 1920s and 1930s. It's a disease that led to sanitariums and death. 

     TB is a communicable disease. You catch it when someone with active TB coughs or sneezes or laughs hard enough to expel sputum from the lungs in your direction. A casual encounter with an infected person will not "likely" cause infection. Thankfully not everyone exposed to the bacteria will develop an active case. However if your immune system has been compromised (HIV, stress, infection, age) or if it is immature (with young children it is especially dangerous) you are at a higher risk. 

     In my 25-year-old son's case we never found out why or where or from whom he contracted the disease, but he was recently diagnosed with active TB. 

     His case is atypical. He is Caucasian, is not homeless, is not an alcoholic or drug user, is not HIV positive, is not underweight or malnourished and has never been out of the United States. The fact he has TB is in itself frightening. But even more disconcerting is the fact that five doctors in our HMO missed it. In the two months before a diagnosis was made, my son exhibited many of the symptoms of TB: night sweats, coughing up blood, a nagging cough, fever, chills and weight loss. None of the doctors recognized the symptoms. 

     The pulmonary specialist at the state-run TB clinic where he is being treated said that if he had been Latino or Asian and exhibited the same symptoms, he would have been immediately tested for TB. 

     There is a problem in Orange County, as in many places in Southern California and elsewhere, of overcrowding, homelessness and people with drug-and alcohol-related problems. Doctors and people living in the U.S. must be made aware that TB is here. We have many immigrants coming to the United States, a large portion from Third World countries where tuberculosis is an epidemic. I don't expect immigrants to stop coming here but I do believe the news should be spread so that others in the position as my son will have a heads-up and be aware of at least the symptoms. TB does not discriminate between the rich and poor or on the basis of skin color: It is an equal opportunity infectious disease and the medical profession had better realize it. The medical and scientific community stopped polio and one day will stop AIDS. Let's hope it will recognize the symptoms of TB and stop the spread. 

     It's safer to spread the word than the disease.

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Kris Hogerhuis Lives in Fullerton

This is a reprint from the Los Angeles Times - June 16, 2001