TB or Not TB?

That's a question Phoenix Fire Department officials are asking as firefighters continue to test positive for tuberculosis

Gerkin reasons that since firefighters use a lot of water, there may be a link, although he concedes that also begs the question of why other Valley fire departments are not reporting high TB rates.

Mycobacterium avium doesn't usually result in a serious illness, like TB does, Gerkin says, although the bacteria stay in the body and can be life-threatening if the immune system becomes weakened, say, from cancer or AIDS.

Mycobacterium avium can produce a skin test reading in the 10 mm to 15 mm range, according to both Gerkin and Reichman. Tests that result in readings of more than 15 mm are more likely actually TB, they both say, and lower readings also could be TB.

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Gerkin says about half the Phoenix firefighters tested in the 10 mm to 15 mm range, and dozens more were not too much higher than that.

The antigen that doctors used in the 1950s to test specifically for mycobacterium avium is no longer legally available under Food and Drug Administration rules. In the U.S., it's available only to a certified researcher, like the Atlanta doctor.

Bob Khan, spokesman for the fire department, says Chief Alan Brunacini is open to any ideas that might resolve the TB issue and protect firefighters who haven't been exposed.

"We've been briefed by the leading epidemiologists in the country . . . and we'll continue to listen to whoever wants to present things to us," Khan says. "There are just a heck of a lot of theories out there."

Contact Patti Epler at her online address: pepler@newtimes.com

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