Woman with tuberculosis refusing treatment; health department could seek court order to force her hand

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is monitoring a case of active tuberculosis (TB) in a woman in Tacoma, who is currently declining treatment. 

TB is curable with medication but if left untreated, results in death. People with active, untreated infections are contagious and represent a risk to others, according to the health department.  

Anyone exposed to a person with TB can become infected, but TB is not easily spread-- you need to be in a closed space for an extended amount of time with the infected person.  

The health department says it is currently working with the woman and her family to persuade her to get treatment to cure her TB. The department did not specify why the woman is refusing treatment.

"Most people we contact are happy to get the treatment they need," said Nigel Turner, division director of Communicable Disease Control. "Occasionally people refuse treatment and isolation. When that happens, we take steps to help keep the community safe."

The health department has legal authority to seek a court order to get patients into treatment, though it's rarely been done, Turner said.

Turner told FOX 13 that in the last 20 years, they've only had to turn to legal avenues three times. 

"We can ask for assistance in the implication of the orders and ultimately request detention," Turner said. "A legal court order that requires people to take the court order or isolate in jail."

Treatment can take up to nine months. 

Healthcare providers are required by law to report all cases of TB to the local health department, according to Washington State Law.

There are, on average, about 20 cases of active TB per year in Pierce County. These infections usually impact the lungs, but it can be found in other parts of the body. Active TB is not common in the United States. 

Symptoms of active TB

  • Unexplained cough for three or more weeks
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fever
  • Unexplained night sweats
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

You can learn more about active TB here.