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Tuberculosis cases increasing in SLO County, health officials report

 An electron micrograph scanning of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which causes the tuberculosis infection.
Courtesy of NIAID.
Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB.

Tuberculosis is on the rise in San Luis Obispo County and across the state, according to local health officials.

Despite relatively low numbers, tuberculosis cases in the County have reached double digits for the first time in over a decade. In 2023, the Public Health Department reported 10 cases of active TB.

In active cases, people may experience symptoms including a persistent cough lasting more than three weeks, chest pain and coughing up blood.

According to Dr. Rick Rosen, the deputy health officer for SLO County, it's too early to know why exactly cases are rising – but he has some thoughts.

“A part of it is probably related to the Covid pandemic, in that folks probably didn't seek care for tuberculosis because of Covid,” Rosen said.

Active TB and Covid-19 have overlapping symptoms, such as a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Rosen explained that TB cases might have been confused for Covid-19, which led to untreated TB and worsened its spread.

Tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It mainly affects the lungs, but it can also affect other parts of the body.

TB bacteria spread through the air when someone with the disease coughs, sings or speaks. People who spend a lot of time with an infected person are at the highest risk of getting the disease.

“People who are infected with tuberculosis live with or are in a congregate setting with someone with active tuberculosis, so that would be like a jail; prison; a school,” Rosen said.

Tuberculosis used to be a deadly disease, but medical advancements have reduced its prevalence. However, it can still be fatal if left untreated.

Not everyone who gets infected becomes sick; latent TB occurs when people test positive for the bacteria but don't show symptoms. These individuals are not contagious, but they may develop the illness if they don't receive treatment.

Health officials advise people to get tested at their local health clinic, especially if they have recently been out of the country.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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