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Public health officials have launched a new, coordinated attack to contain a persistent outbreak of tuberculosis on downtown Los Angeles' skid row, including a search for more than 4,500 people who may have been exposed to the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dispatched scientists to Los Angeles to help local health officials determine why the disease is spreading and how to stop it.
Officials say 11 have died since 2007. Sixty of the 78 cases were among homeless people who live on and around skid row.
Scientists have recently linked the outbreak to a tuberculosis strain that is unique to Los Angeles, with a few isolated cases outside the area.
"This is the largest outbreak in a decade," said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "We are really putting all of our resources into this."
Health workers have identified about 4,650 people who were probably exposed and are trying to track them down for testing and treatment. Local and federal officials are particularly concerned because the cases are linked to one relatively small geographic area and one vulnerable population. But officials are concerned that the outbreak could spread beyond skid row if action isn't taken.
Homeless people are especially at risk of getting TB and of being undiagnosed because they have poor hygiene and nutrition, limited access to healthcare and ongoing contact with infected people. Transmission of the airborne disease is also common because the homeless live in overcrowded areas and are constantly moving among hospitals, shelters and the streets. Many homeless people also have substance abuse or mental health issues that can impede treatment.
"They go from place to place and the likelihood of passing it along is much greater," said Paul Gregerson, chief medical officer of the JWCH Institute, which runs a homeless healthcare program on skid row. "It makes everybody more susceptible."