Tuberculosis rising among Duval County homeless

Duval County disputes Palm Beach Post's numbers about outbreak

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A South Florida newspaper is accusing the Duval County Health Department of failing to warn the public early enough about an increase in the number of people infected with tuberculosis.

The Palm Beach Post is reporting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a serious warning in April that a tuberculosis outbreak in Jacksonville was one of the worst it had investigated in 20 years.

The Health Department said Monday night that the public was not notified until early June of the outbreak. Tuberculosis is highly contagious and has been responsible for 13 deaths in Duval County.

Dr. Robert Harmon, director of the Duval County Health Department, disputes the newspaper's numbers.

Harmon said the recent release of information regarding tuberculosis in Duval County is mainly an alert for the homeless and the people who work with the homeless. Harmon said tuberculosis is on the rise.

"It's an infectious disease, mainly of the lungs, and it's spread through close contact, person to person, by coughing," said Harmon.

Harmon said there have been 99 cases of a particular strain of tuberculosis in Jacksonville over eight years, but that number spiked in 2011 with 30 cases. Most of the cases are among the homeless on the streets or in shelters.

"The main risk people are the other homeless or the people in shelters. So we're going to be increasing our screening and our testing of people in those settings," said Harmon.

Harmon said tuberculosis is treatable but can be fatal if people are not taking antibiotics. Many of the cases involved homeless patients who either didn't keep up on their medications or were mentally ill and didn't get treatment until it was too late.

"Close contact, you'd have to be in the same room with a homeless person. You can be on the same bus and I would say no need for masks, normal distance. And if the person's coughing, they need help," said Harmon.