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Federal health officials arrive in LA to help with TB investigation

By Hayley Fox
Published: Wednesday, March 06, 2013, at 03:43PM
Brian Watt/KPCC

Desmond Williams wearing a protective mask on Skid Row last month. Many area residents and employees say it's been "business as usual" for them since the TB outbreak -- besides all the media attention.

Federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) touched down in L.A. this week to meet with local health officials and play disease detective as they investigate an outbreak of tuberculosis on Skid Row.

Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, director of communicable disease and prevention at the LA County Department of Public Health, said they invited the CDC's help in working to contain the spread of the TB and map its pattern of transmission.

Kim-Farley said that every time someone is diagnosed with active TB, the county health department conducts an interview with the patient to find out what other people may have been exposed to the disease.

“What we will then do is go out to find those close contacts and have them also tested for tuberculosis, using either tuberculosis skin test or a blood test to be able to see whether or not they might be infected with TB,” he said.

Kim-Farley added that the particular TB strain showing up on Skid Row traces back to 2007, but they'll be focusing their investigative efforts on people who've contracted the disease in the last two years. It is these patients who are most likely to still be actively transmitting the disease.

The county health department has repeatedly referred to this TB outbreak as "ongoing," and explained that it was only recently that they were able to connect these particular cases of TB together. This is thanks to a new diagnostic technique called "genotyping," which is a way for health officials to "fingerprint" TB bacteria.

“It allows us to determine if this particular strain traveled from this person to another person and if there’s active transmission that’s going on," said Kim-Farley. "So that’s what clues us to the fact that there’s been an ongoing outbreak in this population with this particular strain.”

Follow the fingerprints and you find the people who may have TB. At least, that’s the hope. Dr. Kim-Farley says it can be difficult to track down people who may be infected in a transient population, so the CDC -- as well as the California Department of Public Health -- is providing extra hands on deck.

But the relationship isn't one-sided: Kim-Farley said state and federal agencies can gain valuable experience and insight of disease spread in homeless populations, which they can then apply to other homeless communities throughout the country and state.

He said the end goal of this TB investigation is to characterize the disease's spread and work with shelters in Skid Row to set up TB screenings as well as teaching folks to identify key symptoms of the disease.

The conversation between residents and health officials is scheduled to continue tonight at a meeting of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. Representatives from multiple local, state and national departments are expected to take part in a question and answer session, while also giving further details about their investigation.


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