A California man infected with tuberculosis has been charged and jailed for not taking his TB medication. Prosecutors argue that Armando Rodriguez, 34, has put others at risk of infection with TB by not taking his medication after he was diagnosed with TB in March. He was denied his request for release from prison on May 23.
TB is a disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis which normally infects the lungs but can infect any part of the body. TB is particularly contagious because an infected person releases the bacteria into the air when he or she coughs, spits, or talks. Another person may inhale the bacteria and become infected. However, not everyone who is infected with the bacteria will become sick. Those who do not become sick have what is known as “latent TB.” Patients with latent TB are usually treated for TB because there is a five to ten percent chance of developing the disease later in life.
Treatment for TB usually takes six to nine months. In order for the treatment to be effective, patients must take their treatment exactly as prescribed for the full amount of time. Doctors refer to a patient who does not take the treatment as prescribed as “non-compliant.” Non-compliant patients may be at risk of infecting others with TB. It is also possible that the TB bacteria may evolve so that the normal treatment is no longer effective.
Rodriguez has been charged because his non-compliance, prosecutors argue, puts other people at risk of infection. Karen Hurst, San Joaquin County public health officer, said her department only resorts to legal action as a last step. The county provides several services to help patients take their medication, such as transportation to clinics. However, history shows that San Joaquin County has been particularly aggressive in the legal fight against TB, charging 30 patients with treatment non-compliance since 1984.
While TB can pose a threat to public health, some believe non-compliance should not be punishable by the criminal justice system. Failing to take medication can leave a patient contagious and put others at risk, especially in the case of a highly contagious disease like TB. However, legal penalties for non-compliance also place blame on individuals. Some believe that we should instead focus on making treatment easily accessible through social service programs. While each state has a TB control program, the legal consequences of non-compliance vary among the states.