Chicago health authorities detect cases of tuberculosis in immigrant shelters

NBC Chicago

The Chicago Department of Public Health, in Illinois, reported this Thursday that a small number of cases of tuberculosis have been detected among immigrants housed in shelters in the city.

The agency did not specify exactly how many cases were detected or identify the affected shelters. He stated that there have been no reports of tuberculosis in the city due to exposure to immigrants who have tested positive for the dangerous bacterial infection.

Chicago sees tuberculosis cases every year, with between 100 and 150 infections recorded annually, said department spokesman Jacob Martin. The health agency said it needs to investigate further to determine which cases are immigrants and which are city residents. The figures will be made public once the analysis is completed, he added.

“I wouldn't call it an outbreak,” Martin added this Thursday. “(The cases) are relatively in line with what we expect to record.”

Tuberculosis can be cured with antibiotics, and its transmission usually requires hours of contact between individuals. It is a bacterial disease that generally attacks the lungs. But it can also attack other parts of the body, including the kidneys, spine and brain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms can include a severe cough that lasts three weeks or longer, chest pain, and coughing up blood. Tuberculosis patients may also experience fatigue, weight loss, poor appetite, chills, fever, and night sweats.

Between 10% and 20% of people in Central and South America have latent tuberculosis, meaning they are positive but asymptomatic and cannot transmit it to other people, according to Martin. However, he said the Health Department is still working to determine which of the recent cases are latent and which are active infections.

When immigrants are treated by the Cook County Health Department, where Chicago is located, they are tested for tuberculosis, among other diseases, Martin explained. It also offers vaccines against a number of communicable diseases.

“We are literally always pushing to vaccinate more people. In the case of these vaccine-preventable diseases, we can prevent their spread,” the official insisted.

Those vaccines include COVID-19, influenza, chickenpox, and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). In the last month alone, the department has administered about 6,000 measles vaccines to immigrants, Martin said.

For patients with an active TB infection, the health department assigns each person a nurse case manager and conducts contact tracing.

What worries Chicagp health authorities the most is that children five years old or younger contract tuberculosis. And it is likely that these cases appear more frequently in minors than in adults, because some Venezuelan children are only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.

According to an analysis by , Venezuela's vaccination rate is one of the lowest in the world. Experts largely blame the current political turmoil and the dismantling of the country's healthcare system.

Many Venezuelan children, for example, lack several of the 10 vaccines recommended before 12 months of age to protect them against 14 diseases, including polio, measles and tuberculosis, according to the news agency.

The report on cases of tuberculosis in immigrant shelters highlights the health risks they may face upon arriving in the city.

Public health problems have been affecting immigrants for months, especially those staying in the city's shelters. At least 52 cases of measles have been confirmed in Chicago, most from an outbreak that occurred in early March in the crowded Pilsen shelter. This was the first time measles was detected in the city since 2019.

About two-thirds of confirmed cases have been in children four years old or younger, while about a third have been in adults ages 18 to 49, according to officials.

The Pilsen shelter is the same facility where a 5-year-old boy died in December of sepsis and a bacterial infection that causes strep throat, according to an autopsy. Contributing factors to his death were COVID-19, adenovirus and rhinovirus.

Other children staying at the shelter were also hospitalized at the time, amid complaints of unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.