Tuberculosis

Alaska's public health education

Alaska State Library, Alaska Department of 

Health & Social Services Photograph Collection, circa 1950

Alaska's Tuberculosis Crisis

Lantis worked for the U.S. Public Health Service from 1954 to 1963 as one of the last classified anthropologists hired by the agency. Although her responsibilities varied during the nearly ten years she worked in public health, she is widely recognized for her contributions to Alaska’s tuberculosis control efforts.

In the early 1950s, native Alaskan cultural groups exhibited some of the highest levels of recorded tuberculin sensitivity in the world. In the highest TB mortality regions, roughly 90% of children under 14 were sensitive to tuberculin.

The level of exposure to this infectious disease was exacerbated by overcrowded housing, poor nutrition, weak village economies, and the challenges of health service workers reaching remote villages consistently throughout the seasons. In 1954, the TB death rate among native Alaskan groups reached 27 times that of the overall U.S. mortality rate from the disease, and tuberculosis was the territory's most pressing health problem.

 

Alaska's mobile health unit: Hygiene Alaskan mobile health unit

Mobile health unit photographs courtesy of the Alaska State Library,

Alaska Department of Health & Social Services Photograph Collection

Public Health Service Response 

Alaska’s mid-century TB control efforts largely reflected the country’s broader control trends of the time, with an emphasis on case finding, vocational rehabilitation of hospitalized patients, and public education regarding TB transmission, detection, and treatment.

The Arctic Health Research Center launched the Alaska TB Chemotherapy program in 1954. Staffed primarily by nurses, the program focused on patient education, treating young children and active cases awaiting hospitalization at home, and providing post-hospitalization care and follow-up.

By 1955, 71 villages, comprising roughly 70% of the service area’s native population, agreed to provide a local representative to work with the Chemotherapy Program nurses to facilitate consistent access to village residences and businesses.

Due to in-home and hospitalized treatment, improved case finding methods, and preventative care education, the Surgeon General reported an 84% decline in deaths from tuberculosis and a 78% decline in the incidence of new cases in Alaska between 1955 and 1965.