State proposes an official end to TB screening in schools

The outside of a school in the snow.
Gladys Jung Elementary School, whose former principal has been accused of sexual abuse of a minor and other crimes involving children. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Alaska is proposing to end regular tuberculosis screening in schools.

The state health department says the school screening program hasn’t turned up a single case in years. But critics of the proposal, including Scott Kendall, question the plan because Alaska regularly tops the list of states with the most cases of the disease.

The plan generated blowback online after Kendall — an outspoken critic of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration — tweeted about it. Kendall served as chief of staff under former Gov. Bill Walker. His tweet included the fact that Alaska has the highest rate of TB in the nation.

Online commenters were especially concerned about the implications for Alaska Native youth. In the mid-1900s, TB was especially deadly among Alaska Native people, who continue to experience the disease at a significantly higher rate than any other group.

Kendall’s tweet is true, but there’s more to the story.

The state considered axing the program as early as 2016, during the Walker administration, and state data shows other methods of fighting the disease are more effective.

As early as 2013, the state stopped requiring universal screening at schools in low-risk areas for TB. And in 2019, the state suspended the program statewide. Now the state is seeking to take the program off the books altogether and make that suspension permanent.

The state’s health department refused an interview for this story. But state epidemiologist Dr. Michelle Rothoff answered some questions via email.

She wrote that between 2014 and 2019, the state didn’t find any cases of TB in school screening even though it tested more than 10,000 students per year.

State data from 2019 shows that cases of TB in  kids under 14 accounted for less than 15% of cases statewide. There were 58 cases of tuberculosis recorded in Alaska last year, according to Dr. Rothoff’s email. She did not say how many of those cases were among children.

Alaskans can still comment on the proposal. The deadline is Dec. 27, 2021.

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