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Los Angeles Is Tracking 4,500 People During Tuberculosis Outbreak

Update Date: Feb 22, 2013 01:25 PM EST

Health officials in Los Angeles are reporting that they are in the midst of the largest tuberculosis outbreak in their county during the past decade. While the number of tuberculosis has decreased in the county as a whole, it has spiked among the homeless population. Since 2007, 78 people have become infected, 60 of them part of the city's homeless population and inhabitants of the city's skid row. Out of this number, 11 people have died. Currently, officials are hunting for 4,500 other people who may be infected, and have reached out to federal officials for help.

The strain appears to be unique to Los Angeles. Fortunately, it is susceptible to all forms of tuberculosis medication. Unfortunately, tuberculosis medication takes six to nine months to fully work; should someone stop taking the antibiotics, the bacteria can become resistant. This is a concern for most people who fall ill with tuberculosis; it is particularly a problem for the city's homeless population. Because many homeless people have substance abuse or mental health problems, it can make treatment difficult. In addition, because many homeless people are transient and move around a lot, it can make them difficult to track.

According to the Los Angeles Times, most of the patients so far are men, and 20 percent are HIV-positive. Six of the eight patients who had HIV have died.

So far, the county's health officials are targeting the outbreak in a few systematic ways. They have alerted the county's doctors, emergency room, clinics and urgent care centers. They ask that homeless shelters appoint a tuberculosis liaison to track any people who may have a persistent cough. They also ask that shelter workers and volunteers be tested for tuberculosis. Public health officials have also asked that shelters provide information for everyone who has used their services. However, though there are 3,000 beds for the homeless population in Los Angeles, there are an estimated 5,000 people, and many people sleep in the streets.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the city has asked the federal government for help. Federal officials have agreed to do so, but they have not yet arrived in Los Angeles.

The Associated Press reports that officials do not believe that the general population is at risk, but it still remains a worry.

Tuberculosis is spread through respiratory droplets, like those that appear when an infected person sneezes, coughs or laughs.

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