Texas has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the U.S. Now, a sweeping effort is underway to diagnose and treat people in south Texas who don’t know they harbor the lung infection.
At San Antonio’s largest homeless shelter, huge fans cool off the temporary residents. The courtyard can get crowded.
One of the hundreds of nightly boarders is James Harrison, 55. “I lost my apartment and had nowhere else to go,” he says.
Like most people at Haven for Hope, Harrison doesn’t plan on staying long. But while he’s here, he’s taking advantage of some free medical testing – a screening for dormant tuberculosis.
“People don’t even think about TB anymore because you don’t see it anymore,” Harrison says. “There’s nothing that tells you until it’s too late that it’s there.”
Tuberculosis is an airborne bacterial infection that attacks the lungs and can be deadly. One vial of blood can be lab-tested to see if people are carrying TB without showing symptoms. That’s called latent tuberculosis infection, a condition that puts them at much greater risk of developing active TB if they are exposed again.
“It goes into your lungs and usually it hides there dormant for years and years. Although it sounds very scary, it is completely treatable,” says Dr. Barbara Taylor, an infectious disease specialist who is part of a program called BEST – Breathe Easy South Texas – an ambitious two million dollar Medicaid-funded effort.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is teaming up with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, UT Health San Antonio and University Health System to screen at-risk people in 20 counties -– an area larger than some entire states. They offer testing at places like shelters, diabetes clinics, low income medical offices.
“It’s not a problem that’s on the south side or east side. It’s a problem all across Bexar County,” says Metro Health’s Tommy Camden. He emphasized TB does not discriminate. It rears its ugly head in urban and rural communities.
“It doesn’t care what color you are, how much money you make,” he says. “As long as you’re breathing, you’re susceptible to catching tuberculosis.”
Still, some populations are at greater risk of carrying the TB bacterium: the homeless, diabetics, drug abusers, and people born in other countries. For most people who test positive, the diagnosis of latent TB comes as a surprise. But testing is easy.