Alabama state health officials are asking workers in the state’s poultry industry to get screened for tuberculosis (TB) after seven cases have been positively identified in four counties.
The outbreak appears to be limited to people who work in chicken processing plants in Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, or Lauderdale counties, but like COVID, the bacteria that causes TB can be transmitted by people who do not show any signs or symptoms of being sick. Officials said that’s why it’s important that everyone who may be affected gets screened in order to prevent a wider outbreak.
The Alabama Department of Public Health is conducting contact investigations to try to find the people who have been closely exposed so they can be tested and provided preventive medicine if necessary. It’s also asking members of the public who may have been exposed to someone who has TB to get tested and take any recommended preventive measures or medications.
Additionally, Dr. Karen Landers, ADPH’s chief medical officer, noted that the chicken processed at these plants will not be impacted.
“Tuberculosis is not transmitted in food,” Landers said. “We’re not concerned that the chickens are going to transmit this disease or that anyone is going to get this disease from eating processed poultry products.”
TB is a bacterial disease that can impact internal organs such as the brain, kidneys, or spine, but it usually affects the lungs. The airborne disease can spread quickly, often through activities like laughing or coughing in close proximity with other people — such as working on the production line of a chicken processing plant. If it isn’t treated, it can be deadly.
“Tuberculosis is an ages-old disease, and we still see TB throughout the United States and in Alabama,” Landers said. “We are really not going to eliminate TB in the United States for many years and we’re always going to have cases.”
Landers said that, worldwide, millions of people are infected with the TB germ. But of those infected, only a small percentage will actually break down with tuberculosis disease at some point in their lifetime.
“Part of that is that the body’s immune system is just so good most of the time in reducing your risk of actually developing TB,” Landers said. “But all that being said, sometimes the body does not cooperate.”
Any person of any age can contract TB, and it is not limited to a specific racial or ethnic group. Landers said the disease is often associated with people from other parts of the world because of the higher numbers of cases, but this is a misassociation.
“Sometimes people want to associate tuberculosis with a person that is not born in the United States, is not from the United States,” Landers says. “But certainly in this particular outbreak, these cases are not related to a specific racial or ethnic group.”
The good news, however, is that TB is highly treatable if someone does get sick.
“For people that are infected, we can provide preventive medication to reduce the risk of a person progressing to TB disease,” Landers said.
This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR. Support for health equity coverage comes from The Commonwealth Fund.