Our View: International focus is on tuberculosis

Saturday is World TB Day - a day to focus the world's attention on tuberculosis and its threat to human health.

Tuberculosis kills 1.6 million people annually. The tragedy is that for $10 in medicine, each of those lives could be spared.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that can attack any part of the body. It usually affects the lungs, but it can have an effect on lymph nodes, kidneys, bones, joints and other parts of the body, according to Kim Field, tuberculosis program coordinator for the Washington state Department of Health. She said 262 cases of active TB were reported in Washington state last year, an increase of six cases over 2005 and an increase of 18 cases over 2004.

There were five cases of tuberculosis in Thurston County in 2006. The infection rate in Washington state is 4.1 cases per 100,000 individuals - equal to the national average.

Field said that she is still seeing cases stemming from a TB outbreak in the Seattle homeless community in 2000. More than 1,000 people were exposed during that outbreak and it's difficult to track down and treat those individuals because of their transitory living conditions.

One positive outcome from that incident, Field said, is the fact that the Seattle Board of Health opened a clinic in downtown Seattle to screen and treat the homeless population.

Kids exposed

One challenge in 2006 was an outbreak among methamphetamine users in Snohomish County. Eleven cases have been attributed to that outbreak, including several small children who were living in the home where the meth was being cooked.

Battling tuberculosis, especially drug-resistant TB, is a costly proposition. Field points to the case of one high school teenager in Snohomish County who was active in his church choir and other social circles. The cost of that single case was $200,000, Field said.

Because he was so active in the community, the teen potentially put a large number of other individuals at risk and each of those individuals had to be contacted, screened and treated. Because the strain was drug resistant, a more costly line of drugs had to be used. But with nearly a quarter of a million dollars in documented costs tied to that single case, it's easy to see why Field and other public health workers across the state focus so much of their attention on prevention.

"A new threat this year," Field said, "is an extreme drug resistant form of tuberculosis. We know of several states that are dealing with this. So far, we haven't - knock on wood - had a case of extreme drug resistant TB."

Universal implications

Tuberculosis is a local, national and international issue.

Carolyn Prouty, a South Sound veterinarian and local spokeswoman for RESULTS, a grassroots organization working to eliminate hunger and disease worldwide, said the South Sound community is fortunate to have Ninth District Congressman Adam Smith, D-Federal Way, fighting for additional funding to battle TB. Prouty said, "Smith has become a new champion in the House fighting global TB. He serves on the Committee for Foreign Affairs - the authorizing committee for the foreign aid bill - and has been remarkable in his willingness to step out and provide leadership in this arena of global development and health."

Smith has introduced the Stop TB Now Act of 2007, which calls for the United States to commit the funds and put the necessary policies in place to halve tuberculosis deaths by 2015. The ambitious goal is to diagnose 70 percent of the TB cases worldwide and treat 85 percent of those patients.

Winning the battle against TB requires billions of dollars. The good news is, the United States, under the leadership of Rep. Smith and others, is stepping up to its role as a world leader to do its part to save 14 million lives over the next decade.