Religious Gathering Raises Disease Concern

May 10, 2019

People attending a Bethel religious revival meeting last month may have been exposed to tuberculosis, commonly known as TB. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and Alaska Public Health officials say that someone who was diagnosed with an active case of tuberculosis attended the New Fire Bethel Ministry revival held at the Old Bowling Alley on April 12 through April 14.

“That individual that has that confirmed case of TB was there, I believe, all three days,” said YKHC Interim Public Relations Director Mitchell Forbes. "And the event organizers say there were up to a hundred people at the event each day. There is obviously potential that others could have it in their system now as well.”

Alaska Natives have a long history with TB. The current strain was most likely brought here by missionaries and the Russians. It was a plague that killed many, and the disease can spread easily in crowded housing conditions. Public Health Nurse Evalina Achee says that TB is nothing to take lightly. Untreated, it can kill.

“They can get really sick, and if a person has it for a long time and doesn’t get it treated, they can die from TB,” said Achee.                                 

The tuberculosis bacterium can spread easily, and its symptoms are not easy to identify. People are not likely to know if they have it. 

According to Achee, "if they are living in a house without proper ventilation they can infect their whole family.”

Health officials are asking those who attended the New Fire Bethel Ministry revival to get tested. In Bethel that can be done at YKHC and the Public Health Clinic located right next to the post office. Free TB tests are available Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can call Bethel Public Health at 907-543-2110 for an appointment. If you are at home in your village, you can contact the local health aide, who can also give you the test.

While Alaska has the highest rate of TB in the nation, the strain in Alaska is not resistant to medication, unlike the tuberculosis in the lower 48. It can be treated and cured.

“We’re lucky we don’t have drug resistant TB, but the rest of the world does,” said Donna Bean, one of the public health nurses who track and manage tuberculosis cases in the region. “So we always want to treat the latent cases so we can stop anyone from becoming active TB and sick and contagious.”

Bean says that there were about 70 cases of TB in Yukon Kuskokwim Delta until recently, with active cases making up about a third of them. The public health program has gotten that number down to around 30 cases, and the staff wants to keep those numbers going down. To do that they want those who attended the recent Bethel revival to come in and be tested so that they can avoid any spread of TB. Treatment requires taking pills. 

“If it’s not active, it's once weekly for three months,” said Bean. “And if it’s active, it's daily for six months.”

The Division of Public Health has trained people to test and track patients to make sure they take the medicine as prescribed. Just because the TB in a person's body is not active, Bean says that it does not mean it won’t become active. 

“A lot of the cases are Elders whose immune systems weaken over time. And then the TB that was once there that your body encapsulated and protected you from, gets out and can make you sick,” she said.

The people who are most vulnerable to TB are the very old, the sick, the weak, and children, especially those under five years old. 

Both public health nurses, Achee and Bean, will be on KYUK’s Wellness Wednesday with an Anchorage-based doctor to talk about TB and answer questions in both Yup’ik and English.