Tuberculosis And Refugees? Backlash Follows “Investigative” Report Into Health Risk

Tuberculosis and the potential health risk posed by refugees became a hot topic after a story aired by a Fargo, North Dakota TV station Monday. The story, which Valley News Live called an investigative report, alleged that tuberculosis infected refugees in North Dakota and Minnesota represent a threat to the health of virtually all its citizens – but local health experts disagree.

The televised report features a text graphic that asks “Could Kindness Be Bad For Your Health?” A print version of the report is unequivocal in its conclusions.

“Our own investigation has found that everyone, U.S. born or foreign born, who lives in a refugee resettlement area is at risk for contracting tuberculosis.”

The report directly points the finger at Somali refugees. As far as proof of the direct link between tuberculosis, refugees, and a health risk in the United States, the Valley News Live report lists a number of articles and sources, including Judicial Watch, a right-wing group that actively opposes refugee resettlement in the United States.

However, when reporters asked Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the agency responsible for resettling refugees in the state, their reply does not support the TV station’s contention – as quoted in their own report.

“We know active TB condition is an inadmissible condition to enter the United States and all of our refugees are properly screened prior to the admission, we do not see active TB as a health risk.”

The TV station also mentions “one viewer” who called to say their physician had insisted on doing a tuberculosis test. While the tuberculosis and refugee health threat story circulated on the internet, the backlash against it began almost immediately.

Tuberculosis, refugees, and the facts

Dr. John Baird, health officer at Fargo-Cass Public Health and North Dakota Department of Health, tuberculosis expert Dee Pritschet, and Doug Schultz, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, were among the experts quoted in an opposing story in the Fargo Forum. All three dispute the conclusions reached by the Valley News Live team.

Tuberculosis is a potentially lethal lung disease, spread by bacteria and close contact with an infected person. It kills 1.5 million people globally each year.

The CDC released a report on tuberculosis on March 25, 2016, noting that after two decades of decline, the incidence of TB plateaued during from 2013 to 2015. The rate of tuberculosis has leveled off at roughly three cases per 100,000. Looking at the actual numbers, there was a very slight increase from 9,406 cases in 2014 to 9,563 cases in 2015 – not enough to change the rate of incidence. Put into perspective, during the 1950s, there were about 60,000 cases of TB annually in the U.S.

The slight increase in cases of tuberculosis from 2014 to 2015 cannot be directly linked to refugees. The incidence of TB is higher overall among foreign-born U.S. residents; however, the incidence of tuberculosis among refugees has actually decreased. There has been an increase in cases among people born in the United States.

Refugees are screened for tuberculosis and other serious illnesses both prior and after entry in the U.S. Fowzia Adde, a refugee from Somalia who lives in West Fargo, N.D. explains in the Fargo Forum report.

“They take a picture of your lungs… they take your blood, they check if you have HIV, they check you all. You go through health testing and then when you come to Fargo, again they put you through health testing.”

The Valley News report cites the number of so-called latent cases of tuberculosis, meaning cases where the bacteria is present but the disease itself does not manifest itself in the patient. The CDC does not keep records on the number of latent cases of tuberculosis, and it is not considered a health risk for Americans. Latent cases can become active if the patient’s health is otherwise compromised, but that only happens about 5 to 10 percent of the time, according to Doug Schultz, who is referenced in the Fargo Forum article.

The TB/refugee controversy

Valley News Live and Fargo Forum are associated with competing news stations in North Dakota. It is sweeps week there, as noted in the Minnesota Public Radio Newscut blog. Hukun Abdullahi was born in Somalia and runs the Afro-American Development Association in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is quoted in the Fargo Forum story.

“You know, it’s like people just having a disease become an entertainment for them.”

The highest incidence of TB in the U.S. is actually found in Alaska, with 9.1 cases per 100,000 people. In point of fact, North Dakota enjoys one of the lowest rates of tuberculosis in the country at 1.19 cases per 100,000 residents – including refugees.

[Image by Giovanni Cancemi/Shutterstock]