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Promoting Tuberculosis Prevention on the Navajo Reservation

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Tuberculosis infects about one third of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization, and American Indians are six times more likely to die from tuberculosis, reported The Circle.

The contagious disease generally attacks the lungs, although it can affect other organs, and is best known by a blood-tinged cough, reported the World Health Organization.

In 1955, the Navajo Nation hit a high of 200 cases of tuberculosis. Just last year, the nation counted 26 Diné people contaminated with the occasionally fatal disease, up from 17 cases in 2009, stated Sarah Yazzie, TB coordinator at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, to the Navajo Times. So for World TB Day, observed on March 24, Navajo Nation and New Mexico public health officials will join forces to raise awareness about the disease, which can be cured if caught early, reported the Times. "The key is to make sure someone is diagnosed soon enough to be treated," said Diana Fortune, acting TB manager for the state of New Mexico, to the Times. "You can die from it if you're not treated."

The communicable disease caused by bacteria spreads through the air, generally through excessive exposure through coughing or sneezing. Symptoms include coughing up blood, fever, chest pain, feeling tired or weak, night sweats, weight loss and lumps in the neck, according to the World Health Organization. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should have a mantoux tuberculin skin test, Yazzie told the Times. If the skin test returns positive, the person has been infected with the tuberculosis bacteria, and more tests, often chest X-rays, must be performed to determine if they have TB disease, Yazzie said.

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The TB advocacy work on the Navajo Nation follows in the footsteps of Annie Wauneka, the first woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council, serving from 1951 until 1978, according to the Arizona Womens Heritage Trail. She made eradicating tuberculosis among Navajos a top priority. Wauneka traveled the reservation, personally visiting the ill and encouraging those with tuberculosis to seek treatment. "We're like Annie Wauneka educating Navajo people about tuberculosis," said TB technician Zena Arviso, who travels about 3,000 miles per month to assist and monitor patients taking their medication in their homes to help prevent the spread of the disease, reported the Times.