For the past year, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) in Washington has been issuing multiple court orders for a resident to agree to treatment and isolation over an active case of tuberculosis. According to NBC News, the woman in question has refused the requests and may now be facing legal action.
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that spreads in a similar way to colds and flu. It’s caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria which mostly attacks the lungs, but can also take hold in the kidneys, spine, and brain, reports the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC). TB can therefore present with a host of symptoms that range from mild to severe. If not treated, it can eventually be fatal.
“Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is monitoring a case of active tuberculosis (TB) in a woman in Tacoma. She has declined to take medication,” said the department in a statement. “We are working with her and her family to try to persuade her to get the treatment she needs to help cure the TB so she can protect herself and others.”
TB cases must be reported by healthcare providers to the local health department according to Washington State Law. When such a report is made, the health department will follow up with the affected person to organize treatment and monitoring. If they are unable to do so, they have the legal authority to seek a court order.
In this latest case, the first court order was made over a year ago. According to The News Tribune, the TB patient has refused treatment, except for one instance where it was started but not completed. This prompted the health department to follow up with greater enforcement measures which could eventually include home monitoring or even isolation in jail.
"We can ask for assistance in the implication of the orders and ultimately request detention," said Nigel Turner, division director of Communicable Disease Control, to Fox 13. "A legal court order that requires people to take the court order or isolate in jail."
While the enforced treatment and quarantine may be controversial to some, such cases draw parallels with Typhoid Mary: arguably the most famous super-spreader in history who was determined to work while asymptomatically carrying a strain of Salmonella bacteria. Her CV included many outbreaks of the illness, and when the dots were connected regarding her role in spreading the disease, she took on an alias to avoid detection.
Fifty-one infections and three deaths were attributed to Mary, but there could very well have been more. The story is a reminder as to why the quarantine steps taken during the COVID-19 pandemic were necessary, and how prompt treatment can prevent the further spread of potentially fatal diseases.
“Most people we contact are happy to get the treatment they need,” said Nigel Turner, division director of Communicable Disease Control, in the TPCHD’s statement. “Occasionally people refuse treatment and isolation. When that happens, we take steps to help keep the community safe.”
[H/T: Ars Technica]