Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is "mysterious illness" in Del Rio private prison TB?

“The presence of tuberculosis is almost expected in any correctional facility,” said Dr. Sandra Guerra-Cantu, Region 8 Health Director of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Really? Okay. Move along folks. Nothing to see here. ...

Rumors in Del Rio have spread that two recent deaths and other reported inmate illnesses were caused by tuberculosis, reports the Del Rio News Herald, but no cause of death has yet been officially confirmed. The facility functions both as the Val Verde county jail and also houses inmates from other counties and even out of state.

It's certainly true that TB is more common in prison, and prisoners are less likely to complete treatment, which takes 6-9 months, encouraging antibiotic-resistant strains to evolve. Because of its method of transmission, prisons and jails are a prime breeding ground for TB.

But for exactly those reasons health officials should be scurrying to prevent it. If TB was the cause of not one but two inmate deaths in Del Rio, that's a much bigger deal than Guerra-Cantu makes it out to be.

The Texas prison system operates a 24-bed TB quarantine facility in San Antonio, described in this excellent article from the Austin Statesman recently by Brad Buccholz. Unit 14, as it's called, is the last of Texas' TB sanatoriums. Before antibiotics, those plagued with tuberculosis, or "consumption," as it was commonly known, were quarantined en masse in these prison-like facilities, says Wikipedia, and 50% who went in did not come out. The last of these institutions apparently was handed over to the state prison system at some point, which continues to operate it to this day.

I don't blame public health officials for trying to avoid a panic, but neither should these unexplained deaths and illnesses be swept under the rug. If this outbreak does turn out to be TB, maybe somebody ought to let the Idaho Department of Corrections know what's going on - they just moved a bunch of their inmates into the Del Rio facility after their director toured and called it a "pleasant surprise." Perhaps they found a way to mute the sounds of hacking and coughing during the director's tour.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

TB* and chicken pox have been problems at that jail for some time.

*(Not necessarily active infections, but positive skin tests.)