'Small number' of tuberculosis cases confirmed in Chicago migrant shelters

CHICAGO -  Chicago health officials confirmed Wednesday that there is a 'small number' of tuberculosis (TB) cases among migrants in the city, and their medical teams are ramping up contact tracing.

The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) said the cases were reported in "a few different shelters" in the city; however, officials did not disclose the exact number of confirmed cases, or which shelter locations they originated from.

"These outbreaks happen in close quarters, people who are living close to one another," said Dr. Aniruddha Hazra, associate professor of medicine, Infectious Diseases and Global Health at the University of Chicago.

While Dr. Hazra says the situation is cause for concern, he tells FOX 32 Chicago the public has no reason to panic.

"The people who are most at risk of tuberculosis are the other migrants living in that shelter," said Hazra.

The confirmed tuberculosis cases come as measles cases in Chicago surpass 55, with the majority of cases being reported in the Pilsen migrant shelter on Halsted Street.

Measles, however, is preventable through vaccination.

"There is no effective vaccine against tuberculosis," said Hazra.

Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs.

"It can only be spread by someone with active tuberculosis disease. Someone who is actively coughing up these droplets –  that is how it gets spread," said Dr. Gary Reschak, pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital.

Dr. Reschak says open-air facilities, like shelters, can lead to increased transmission.

"The important thing is trying to figure out who there has the active disease and properly treating them," said Reschak.

Meanwhile, CDPH said on Wednesday that about 10 to 20 percent of residents in Central and South America have latent TB infections, which means they are asymptomatic, and that the infection is not transmissible to others.

"Not everyone who acquires TB will develop an active infection. A percentage or folks will actually develop what we call a latent infection. But that latent TB can then reactivate to become active TB at some point in the future," said Hazra. "They can still receive anti-TB therapy to make sure that latent infection is fully eradicated."

Health experts also say that treatment could involve multiple antibiotics for several months, and it is crucial that a patient completes their full course of treatment.

A spokesperson for CDPH said they are working to keep the cases contained and released the following statement to FOX 32 on Wednesday:

"CDPH is aware of a small number of cases of TB among new arrivals in a few different shelters over the course of the response. It is important to note that an estimated 10-20% of residents of Central and South America have latent TB infection, which is asymptomatic and not transmissible to others, but does result in a positive TB test. For those who do have active cases of TB disease, CDPH assigns a nurse case manager to each individual and performs a contact tracing investigation. TB is curable with antibiotics and is not particularly infectious, typically requiring several hours or more of prolonged close contact between individuals to spread, but CDPH continues to take cases seriously in order to keep it contained. To date, CDPH has not confirmed any reports of TB that resulted from exposure to new arrivals in Chicago.

"TB is not a novel or rarely seen illness in Chicago, as the Chicago Department of Public Health typically expects to see between 100-150 cases of tuberculosis in Chicago residents in an average year. We will continue to offer treatment to individuals as necessary and take the proper precautions to eliminate spread, but we do not consider this a matter presenting a substantial threat to the public."

Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez took to "X" this week, demanding that there be immunization standards for all asylum seekers.

"Performative politics & hurt feelings kept City Hall from avoiding the obvious looming disaster. Anyone who demanded action to protect our residents was called racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant by fringe politicians. And now here we are: measles, now tuberculosis both "confirmed" in Chicago. Shame on every mouthpiece that worked so hard to keep this secret," Ald. Lopez said in his post.

His full post can be found below:

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TB is an airborne disease that can occur in any part of the body, but it most often causes infection in the lungs, health officials said.

TB is spread from person to person through the air and happens when a person with TB of the lungs sneezes, coughs, speaks or sings and a person nearby breathes in the MTB bacteria.

If someone is not treated properly, TB can be a severe or deadly disease, officials said.

MORE: Tuberculosis cases continued climbing in 2023