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02/25/2013

L.A.'s Skid Row: ground zero for the city's largest tuberculosis outbreak in a decade

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Street scenes from Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, the last refuge for people with nowhere else to go. (Mitch Potter/Toronto Star)

The Los Angeles Times has been reporting on an unfolding health crisis in the city's downtown core: L.A.'s largest tuberculosis outbreak in a decade.

Nearly 80 cases have been identified and 11 people have died since 2007, the L.A. Times reports. The strain is unique to the area and health authorities are now trying to track down at least 4,650 people who may have been exposed. Local health officials have also reached out to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help.

Ground zero of the outbreak is the city's notorious 50-block "Skid Row" -- home to the largest concentration of homelessness in the United States.

The homeless are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases like TB -- they have poor hygiene and nutrition, are often housed in crowded conditions, and fall through the cracks of the health care system. Issues around substance abuse, mental health and transience also make long-term treatment regimens tough to stick to -- it takes between six and nine months to treat TB (and that's only for drug-susceptible strains; treating drug-resistant TB strains takes even longer).

Action is urgently needed to stamp out this outbreak -- not just for the sake of L.A.'s most vulnerable but also because the highly-contagious disease could easily spread beyond Skid Row's borders.

The real solution here is to tackle L.A.'s homelessness problem. As long as Skid Row is Skid Row, infectious diseases will have their playground.

The area, according to LAPD senior lead officer Deon Joseph, has always been a "Petri dish" for pathogens.

"We just got to find a way to change that," he told L.A.'s blogdowntown.com.

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


 

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