One year, when I was in my early twenties and fresh out of nursing school, my annual TB skin test puffed right up within a day or two after I had it done. Suddenly I turned from nurse to patient. I had to have a chest x-ray, blood tests and take Isoniazid for a year and a half. My liver and kidney functions were monitored continually.
Having been a robustly healthy child and teen, I wasn’t used to this. TB is the disease of unwashed skid-row bums, 19th-century writers and movie characters slowly and dramatically fading as they cough their last few days away. How could I have this? And I was confused. How could I have TB and not have TB at the same time?
Somewhere during the course of my workday tending to patients, I had breathed in the exhaled air of someone with active tuberculosis. I have no idea who; none of my patients had it as a diagnosis. It was enough for my body to make antibodies against it, as evidenced by the puffy bump on my arm, but not enough for me to get sick with the disease.
I was in good company. According to the World Health Organization, about a third of the people on the planet have latent TB infection like I did. They are neither ill nor contagious. They have no symptoms.
Recently Ulster County’s health department reported a case of active TB in a retail employee in Kingston. Due to privacy laws, namely the federal Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA), neither the woman’s name nor her place of employment have been released. This has irked a few people who shop in Kingston; however it’s very unlikely that a customer making a purchase with this person’s help would catch the disease from her, as it takes somewhat more than casual contact to get it. The woman’s family members and possibly some co-workers would be at more risk than any customers.
She is now quarantined at home and is being treated, according to county officials.
New York State reports about 1,300 cases of TB a year. Ulster County had five last year and only one the year before.