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TB on the rise in Erie County

An x-ray of lungs with tuberculosis
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria that attacks the lungs.

It's not a big jump, but tuberculosis in Erie County is rising. Last year, the county had its highest total of new TB cases since 2014.

It's not unexpected that there were 15 new cases in 2020, up from three in 2019. The World Health Organization said it's a worldwide trend of new cases and deaths, with TB buried by the concern and the resources put into the COVID pandemic. There is also the possibility many doctors who have never seen the disease don't recognize a case.

County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein knows TB well, since she and her doctor husband were Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors in Africa and saw a lot of the disease, and she said immigrants do arrive with latent TB.

"Most of the people that come over from countries where TB is endemic, where most people have been infected, have latent TB. And so they are not actively infected and can't transmit infections to other people," she said. "And for those people we recommend a course of TB medications to make sure that the tuberculosis stays at bay, stays latent."

Burstein said the county has a very robust program of physicals for new immigrants, which includes testing for tuberculosis, whether latent or not. There are several medications that can cure the disease, although it can take a while and there can be situations of monitoring to make sure a patient is taking the required medication.

"People who have an active case of TB can transmit the infection to other people," Burstein said. "That's why it's important that those individuals stay in isolation until we can test their sputum, their respiratory secretions, to make sure that they don't have any active TB in their sputum."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.