Tuberculosis kills Clark County man

Victim was unaware he had infection, official says

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Tuberculosis cases

Number of new cases of active tuberculosis in Clark County each year:

2013 — 4

2012 — 7

2011 — 10

2010 — 22

2009 — 16

Source: Clark County Public Health Department

A Clark County man has died from tuberculosis — a cause of death health officials call “exceedingly rare.”

Clark County Public Health officials confirm a man in his 50s died recently from TB. The man did not know he had TB and, as a result, was not receiving treatment for it. The diagnosis was made during the autopsy, said Dr. Alan Melnick, health officer/administrator of Clark County Public Health.

The man’s name was not released.

Although tuberculosis is contagious, Melnick said there is no risk to the general public at this time. Health officials are continuing to investigate the death and are working to identify and contact anyone who may have been exposed, Melnick said.

Tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium that attacks the lungs, but it can also attack other parts of the body, such as the kidney, spine or brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Although contagious, TB is far less contagious than illnesses such as measles, influenza or pertussis (whooping cough),” Melnick said via email.

TB is spread through the air from one person to another. The bacteria spread when a person with TB of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings, and people nearby inhale the bacteria, according to the CDC.

Active and latent

TB cannot be spread by shaking hands with someone with the disease or by touching common surfaces, Melnick said. The germ doesn’t survive in the environment, he said.

Typically, those at highest risk of contracting TB from an infected person are family members and those who spend considerable time with someone in a closed environment, such as office mates, Melnick said.

Not everyone with TB gets sick.

There are two varieties of tuberculosis: active disease and latent infection. A latent infection is when the bacteria live in the body but are not making the infected person sick. People with latent TB cannot spread the bacteria. Active TB disease occurs when the immune system can’t stop the bacteria from multiplying in the body, according to the CDC. About 10 percent of people with a latent TB infection develop active TB, Melnick said.

TB can be treated with medication. But left untreated, active cases can be fatal.

Prior to the recent death, Melnick could not recall another TB death in Clark County. Every year, two to 18 people die from TB in Washington.

Last year, the number of TB cases in Washington was lower than it has been in more than 30 years. In 2012, Washington health officials reported 185 cases of TB. That’s down from 200 cases in 2011 and 236 cases in 2010, according to state health data.

In Clark County, health officials are currently monitoring three active cases of TB and one suspected case, Melnick said. Last year, Clark County had seven new cases of TB.