Kansas student who spread tuberculosis now educating others

June 11, 2017

OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — A former student at Olathe Northwest High School who had active tuberculosis has been working to raise awareness about the sometimes fatal disease that is still relatively rare in Kansas.

Zee Pinkerton was a senior at the school two years ago when tests found he had an active case of the lung disease, which is spread by saliva droplets coughed or sneezed into the air. It cannot be spread by someone with a latent case.

Pinkerton spent months quarantined at home on medication while hundreds of people at Olathe Northwest and dozens of people outside the school who had contact with him were tested. At least 40 people tested positive for latent tuberculosis and they were given medication. No one tested positive for an active case.

Pinkerton beat the disease and now advocates for educating others about the disease, including meeting with members of Congress and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to talk about vaccine research, testing protocols and the need for new drugs, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/2rNlZxT ). He and other tuberculosis survivors are asking the federal government to continue funding research for new medications that has fewer side effects. They’re also pushing for a vaccine to be developed.

“TB is not only an international problem,” Pinkerton said. “It’s a domestic problem, too.”

About three cases for every 100,000 people are reported in the U.S. every year. Pinkerton believes he was exposed to the illness in Ethiopia, where he lived with his grandmother before he was adopted and brought to the United States in 2007. A skin test he was given when he came to the U.S. was negative but he believes the test failed.

Michael Lauzardo, a tuberculosis expert at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, said a failed test is not uncommon. A blood test is more accurate.

The disease spreads in settings like nursing homes and prisons where people are either medically fragile or have limited access to health care and is a serious threat to people with HIV. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said the rate of tuberculosis among people with diabetes in the state is increasing.

The state health department said 39 active tuberculosis cases were reported in Kansas last year. Eighty-two percent of them were in foreign-born residents, but half of those had been in the U.S. for more than 10 years.

“Thinking, ‘Well, we don’t have that here, that’s another person’s disease,’ is just not realistic,” Lauzardo said. “The lay public just needs to know, enlightened self-interest dictates no matter where you are on the political spectrum, it makes sense to invest in TB and public health.”

Pinkerton believes he carried a latent form of the tuberculosis bacteria for years. Then, as he was finishing his last semester of high school, he became one of the 5 to 10 percent of latent TB carriers who become actively infected. He kept going to school for two to three weeks after he began coughing, losing weight and sweating at night after a doctor couldn’t determine what was wrong with him. Eventually, after several visits to nurses and doctors, a blood test confirmed the active case.

Pinkerton was put on a six-month course of medications with side effects that included depression, loss of appetite and tingling in his extremities. He says he was lucky because others survivors in a group called “We Are TB” had the drug-resistant version of the illness and had to take harsher medications.

“One of my friends, he lost his hearing because of the medications he was taking,” Pinkerton said. “You have to pay the price for it if you want to live.”

After two months, Pinkerton passed a saliva test on three consecutive days and was considered no longer contagious.

Pinkerton is now a student at Johnson County Community College. He’s planning to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is considering studying public health.


Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com