Tuberculosis epidemic endures

Jan 28, 2016

A few weeks ago, the small town of Marion in Alabama’s black belt came down with a tuberculosis epidemic.  Officials with State Department of Public Health are still seeing people to treat the respiratory disease.  APR’s MacKenzie Bates went back to the Perry County town to check on the progress…

It’s a cold morning outside the Perry County Health Department.  People are walking inside and out of the building to either get screened or find out results of the test for tuberculosis.

“In the morning we’ve had people wrapped around the building three and four people deep trying to get in to sign in.”

That’s Pam Barrett.  She’s  the Division of Tuberculosis Control Director for the Alabama Department of Health.

The tuberculosis outbreak in the small Perry County town is both getting better and worse.  They’ve seen more than 15-hundred people in Marion and the surrounding areas. 

“We’ve had 85 that came back that have latent TB infection,” Barrett says.  “It does not mean they have Active TB disease.  It just means that they’ve got the germ in their body that causes TB.”

Barrett says 27 people have tested positive for active TB, 21 of which live in Perry County.  The disease has killed three people in the area since 2011.  Symptoms for TB include a nagging cough, sudden weight loss, and night sweats. It spreads when people are in close contact with one another.

“I went through the drawing of blood process today.”

That’s sixty three year old Fannie Wilson of Uniontown. Fannie Wilson wanted to get tested to see if she has the infection.

“Because this is a working territory here,” Wilson says.  “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.  I don’t think it’s too frightening out here.  People are just whatever about it so it’s minimal.”

One extra reason for her cooperation could be the twenty dollar bill she has clutched in her hand. The State Health Department used grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pay people to get tested.  Pam Barrett says Residents get twenty dollars for the initial test, twenty dollars for the follow-up and even more money if they complete treatment if they test positive.   

“I think a lot of the people that have came in have came in only because of the money. Some of the people have came in were genuinely concerned about their health.  But I’m not sure that some of the population that we need to be testing has been tested.”

In more than three weeks, they have shelled out more than 80-thousand dollars to people coming in just to get tested and even more money for follow ups and chest x-rays.  But that “incentive” is coming to an end.  Barrett says today is the last day for Marion residents to get paid just for coming in to be tested for tuberculosis. 

“We do want to make it clear that we will be posting information about days you can come in.  We will be seeing people by appointment only and we will not be paying them.”

The fear around Marion is real.  Businesses are telling employees to get screened or they can’t come in to work. 

At Francis Marion and R.C. Hatch High Schools, the basketball teams have not played games in more than two weeks.

John Heard is the Superintendent of Perry County Schools.  He’s frustrated with the decision to cancel games even though Barrett and other health officials say it’s ok to play the contests.

“I do understand some of the parent’s concern,” Heard says.  “But most of the time it’s because of misinformation and them not understanding how the disease spreads.  That there is no likelihood they would get the disease inside the gymnasium.”

Francis Marion’s game against Keith High School is canceled for tonight.  It’s not known if Hatch’s game at Demopolis is still on. 

Barrett says active TB cases take usually six to nine months to treat if the patient stays on track with the medication.  Anyone with latent infection is usually treated within three months of taking medicine.