Tuberculosis is not a disease of the past in Colorado

Listen Now
Photo: TB Now - Dr. Belknap
Robert Belknap, MD, Director of Denver Metro TB Control Program, examines the chest X-ray of a TB patient. The X-ray on the right shows a left lung infected with TB – before treatment. The X-ray on left, shows that same lung after the patient began treatment at the Denver Metro Tuberculosis Clinic at Denver Public Health.

Every year dozens of Coloradans are diagnosed with tuberculosis. It’s possible that many more have no idea they’re infected and often their doctors don’t either.

“Colorado has been a low-incidence state for a while with around 65-75 patients annually," says Dr. Bob Belknap, the director of the Denver Metro TB Program. "But patients do die of TB every year. It’s when we take our eyes off of it, that’s when resurgence and deaths occur.”

A cough lasting more than three weeks, fever, chest pain, weakness are among the typical symptoms of TB. But it’s not just a respiratory disease. Most people get infected through the lungs, but it can spread throughout body.

“There was a resurgence of TB in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s tied to HIV,” he said. “But also because we got complacent and public health programs were cut or eliminated. Globally TB is still a huge problem.”

Take the case of Hilda, who asked that we not use her last name because of the stigma associated with TB. For about a year, Hilda had a nagging cough and her doctor suggested cough medicine. But one day, while out shopping, she had a coughing attack so bad, she couldn’t breathe. She went back to the doctor.

“They prescribed some medicine for pneumonia ... and I still didn’t feel very good," she says. "So I went back to the doctor and said I don’t feel good. I’m tired and I lost my appetite. I lost a lot of weight."

That’s when she was finally tested for TB. She was shocked to learn that she had it. She may have been exposed as long as 35 years before, by a sick relative. In the ensuing years, Hilda led a normal life.

The disease and the treatment have upended Hilda’s life. She was put into isolation. She’s losing her hearing and her sense of taste. She had to quit her job and depend on her family for help around the house. And she has to endure two years of medication administered daily through a tube in her stomach

Doctors like Belknap want to eradicate TB from the state so more people don’t have to suffer like Hilda. Belknap is the director of the Denver Metro TB Program. He and other healthcare providers are developing a plan with the goal of eliminating TB from Colorado by 2026.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Denver Metro TB Program. We regret the error.