Health officials warn that Washington is experiencing the state’s largest tuberculosis outbreak in 20 years. And it’s part of a concerning surge in TB cases worldwide.

A Washington State Department of Health release from Thursday shared that state and local health officials are on “heightened alert” due to the current rise in TB cases.

While TB cases in Washington appeared to trend downward during the first year of the pandemic (potentially due to decreased reporting), cases notably rose in 2021 – which saw a total of 199 reported cases statewide, a 22% increase from 2020, according to the state department of health.

So far, 70 TB cases have already been reported in 2022.

“It’s been 20 years since we saw a cluster of TB cases like this,” Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, Washington State chief science officer, said in a statement. “Increased access to TB testing and treatment in the community is going to be key to getting TB under control.”

Washington’s TB outbreak includes 17 in people who were interconnected with each other and several state prisons. In a statement, Washington State Department of Corrections’ chief medical officer Dr. MaryAnn Curl said since a rise in cases at the state’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center was identified, the DOC has been working with the DOH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on testing and actions to decrease the spread.

TB cases are rising worldwide – and devastating consequences can follow.

In October, the World Health Organization issued a report linking increased TB deaths to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the WHO, due to COVID-19 and reduced access to care, TB deaths rose for the first time in over a decade.

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At around 1.5 million deaths worldwide in 2020, there were significantly more TB deaths – with far fewer people receiving diagnosis, treatment or TB preventive care – than in 2019, the WHO found.

In addition, overall spending on critical TB services declined.

“This report confirms our fears that the disruption of essential health services due to the pandemic could start to unravel years of progress against tuberculosis,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, stated in October. “This is alarming news that must serve as a global wake-up call to the urgent need for investments and innovation to close the gaps in diagnosis, treatment and care for the millions of people affected by this ancient but preventable and treatable disease.”

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Across the United States, like in Washington, health officials saw a significant decline for reported TB cases in 2020. However, the CDC points to a few potential explanations – including delayed or missed TB diagnoses because of COVID-19 strains on the health care system, a decline in cases related to the pandemic’s mitigation efforts and a shift in travel habits.

Washington is not the only state that has reported a rise in TB cases this year. The Kansas Department of Health reported an outbreak of confirmed TB cases in March. At the time of the report, fewer than 10 cases were confirmed.

Experts stress that informing yourself about the symptoms, treatments and spread of TB – which is a preventable and curable disease – is critical.

Learn more on the CDC’s website.

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