"Several individuals" at the Maine State Prison in Warren have tested positive for tuberculosis, but "there are no confirmed active cases," says Denise Lord, deputy Maine Corrections commissioner.
"The medical department is totally playing it down and treating the guys who are positive as if it is nothing out of the ordinary," an inmate who wished to remain anonymous recently wrote to Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. "It's kind of scary. I would like to not catch TB in here!"
But a positive skin test generally means only "the TB germ is within you," says Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "The vast majority do not get sick." (And sometimes there are false positives.)
A positive test doesn't mean the TB is communicable or even has to be treated, Sears says. Starting treatment would depend on such factors as the person's age and other health problems.
TB bacteria usually infect the lungs but can infect other parts of the body. Before the development of antibiotics, TB was a major killer in the United States; it still is in poorer countries.
Although Sears's agency is working with Corrections to deal with the infection, he didn't know how many prisoners have tested positive nor how many were being treated. Lord didn't provide those numbers by deadline.
"Inmates are routinely screened for TB and systems are in place to monitor TB at the prison," she says.
The Cumberland County Jail administrator, Major Francine Breton, says an inmate with a cough three years ago had active TB. He was cured with antibiotics, she says. Positive tests at the jail are "regular occurrences." Most inmates staying longer than two weeks are tested, she says.
Sears says 3 to 4 percent of the Maine population would typically test positive. That would amount to as many as 52,000 people in the state and 37 among the prison's 920 inmates, although prisons are generally infected at a higher rate. HIV infection, substance abuse, and uncontrolled diabetes increase the risk of TB. Nine active TB cases were reported in Maine last year.
Any danger to prison inmates, staff, or visitors? "Not at this point," Sears says.