FOR RELEASE: March 24, 2023
CONTACT: Natalie Shelton
Tuberculosis: A ‘Silent Killer’
As a registered nurse and communicable disease nurse coordinator for District 4 Public Health, Melody Wegienka has seen firsthand how tuberculosis—perhaps not considered by many Americans as a current potential health threat—remains a quiet but serious concern throughout the 12 counties she serves.
“Because I’ve seen how it can affect a person’s health and how it can spread, I always try to talk to patient providers and others about TB,” said Wegienka, who has worked at District 4 for 29 years. “It doesn’t make the headlines like COVID-19 or the flu, but it’s still very real in our area. Many times patients are extremely ill before TB is even considered as the potential source, so by that time they have already infected family, friends and co-workers.”
Raising awareness during World Tuberculosis Day on March 24 helps Wegienka educate individuals about the potentially deadly infection, often considered in the medical field as a respiratory disease that “hides in plain sight,” she said.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that cause TB, affect the lungs but may also attack other parts of the body such as the kidney, spine and brain. The bacteria can live in the body for years without symptoms, which is known as latent TB infection. At this stage, TB is not contagious and cannot infect others.
If a person is diagnosed with latent TB, short and convenient treatment options can help protect them from getting sick with active TB disease. Without this treatment, one in 10 individuals with latent TB can get sick at any time with active TB disease, which can spread to others.
Active TB can be fatal if it’s not treated, but taking medicine as directed can almost always cure TB. Well-known individuals who have recovered from an active TB infection include Tina Turner, Ringo Starr, Cat Stevens, the late Desmond Tutu, and the late Nelson Mandela.
TB spreads through the air from person to person, and when someone with active TB disease coughs or speaks, people nearby may breathe in the bacteria and become infected. TB cannot be spread through surface contact or sharing food and drink.
Though TB is considered largely controlled in the U.S., the CDC estimates up to 13 million people in the country live with latent TB infection. Active TB remains the 13th leading cause of death worldwide.
In 2021, Georgia ranked the seventh highest state for the number of new TB cases, according to the CDC. Georgia reported 221 new TB cases in 2020 and 222 in 2021. In District 4’s 12-county area, 21 active TB cases were identified in 2021, compared to 15 in 2022, Wegienka said.
Individuals at high risk for TB are urged to contact their physician’s office or local health department. District 4 health departments can administer a simple skin or blood test to determine the presence of TB infection. Signs and symptoms of an active infection include cough, coughing up blood, weight loss, fever, fatigue, night sweats, and chest pain.
If a test is positive, the health department will check for an abnormal chest x-ray or positive sputum smear or culture to see if it has progressed to active TB disease. County health departments also have treatments available for both latent TB infection and TB disease.
Health departments also provide Directly Observed Therapy (DOT), which is the standard tuberculosis program to ensure TB patients complete their treatment correctly. Georgia law requires persons with active TB take appropriate medication because it is an infection that can easily be spread.
Visit District 4’s website to learn more about TB testing and treatment options offered at local health departments as well as District 4’s role in protecting individuals and communities from the spread of this disease. To make an appointment for TB testing, please call (800) 847-4262.