Man with tuberculosis arrested

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DURHAM, N.C. – A Durham man suffering from tuberculosis, a communicable lung disease, was arrested Sunday for skipping mandatory treatments since November.

Durham County Health Department officials wouldn’t say how many people Thomas Eugene Harris, 41, might have infected.

All the people who have been in close contact with Harris have been notified and will be tested, said Brian Letourneau, health department director.

Harris is being held at the Durham County jail, his bail set at $50,000.

The officers who arrested him and the magistrate who booked him into the jail wore masks over their mouths.

Harris was detained Sunday as an armed robbery suspect.

He fit the description of a man who tried to rob a woman in her driveway Saturday in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood and then forced another woman to give him $20, said Sgt. J.C. Shelton of the Durham Police Department.

The arresting officers determined he was not the robbery suspect, but found an outstanding warrant for skipping tuberculosis treatment when they checked his background.

Letourneau said he would speak with police Monday about testing the officers for tuberculosis.

Harris frequented a Food Lion grocery store in Durham, according to the arrest warrant.

A manager at the store referred questions to a corporate spokesperson. There was no one at the chain’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters Sunday to comment.

Letourneau said people who may have passed Harris in the grocery store or anywhere else have an “extraordinarily slim” chance of catching the disease.

“You have to be exposed for hours and hours in basically a confined space in order to contract tuberculosis,” Letourneau said.

Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria and passed through airborne droplets from coughs or sneezes of infected persons.

Symptoms include coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, fever and sweating.

The disease can be fatal, but medicinal treatments are effective in most cases.

An infected person is required by law to take four different drugs daily during the first two weeks of treatment, said Hattie Wood, a nurse at the Durham County Health Department who monitors all communicable disease cases in the county.

The drugs then are taken twice a week for anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on the location and severity of the infection, Wood said.

The drugs must be ingested in front of a health department official for the duration of treatment, she said.

Neither Letourneau nor Wood would say whether Harris was taking drugs daily or semiweekly, citing patient confidentiality.

The arrest warrant stated he has skipped his scheduled treatments since Nov. 23.

There were 12 reported cases of tuberculosis in Durham County in 2006, Wood said, 21 in 2005.

She said health officials sometimes go to great lengths to make sure patients take their medicines. They’ll visit a patient’s home after hours or early in the morning or even keep the downtown clinic open late to accommodate work schedules.

Wood said she doesn’t understand why anyone would skip treatment for a potentially fatal disease.

Though hauling patients to jail is a last resort, Harris is not the first to force that extreme step, Wood said.

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