Texas School Outbreak Reminds Us of a Forgotten Disease

Mandy Slutsker — October 7, 2011 – 7:56 am

A few weeks ago, a teacher in Texas walked into a high school classroom with a cough.  Now at least 128 students have tested positive for Tuberculosis (TB) - a disease that though curable still shockingly takes the lives of 1.7 million people a year.

In the U.S., we often feel immune from many diseases plaguing other parts of the world. The recent TB outbreak is a reminder that TB is a disease that does not respect borders. Everyone who breathes is at risk.

This outbreak has led many parents to feel angry and frustrated. People want more information. This exposes a deeper problem - the lack of awareness about TB. Especially TB in children. 

ACTION has been working to fill the information gap and recently released a report exposing this hidden epidemic. The truth is that many people get exposed to TB. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will get sick. Most of the students in Texas have latent forms of the disease which are not infectious. In fact, one-third of people in the world have this form of the disease. Only 10% of people with latent TB will develop active disease. To prevent this from happening people with latent TB are treated with antibiotics for nine months.

“But didn’t my child get vaccinated against TB?” many parents are wondering. The answer is probably no. While there is a vaccine called BCG that can protect against the most severe forms of TB - it is older than the automobile and doesn’t always work. The BCG vaccine is usually only given to children in developing countries but it only protects against the most severe forms of the disease such as TB meningitis, however it fails to protect against most other forms of TB and wares off as children get older. Scientists are working on developing a new vaccine, but further funding is needed to develop and deliver it worldwide.

While the students in Texas have access to TB testing and treatment, it’s important to remember that millions of children around the world do not have these resources. A lack of political will, inadequate funding, and children’s exclusion from research remain barriers to eliminating childhood TB. It’s time we expose this hidden epidemic and find the resources to make the fight against childhood TB a global health priority