Police in Santa Maria, California are still searching for Augustin Zeferino, 24, who has been missing for over a month after being diagnosed with a contagious, drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. He is believed to be somewhere in the Santa Maria vicinity, but his exact whereabouts are still unknown.
California state law requires anyone diagnosed with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis to take the medication necessary to clear up the infection for 18-24 months. Refusing to comply with this requirement is a misdemeanor crime. It is not known when Zeferino was diagnosed with the disease, but according to the Santa Barbara County Health Department, he discontinued his treatment prematurely two weeks ago. There is now a warrant out for his arrest.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person suspected of suffering from any of the following contagious diseases, which fall into one of nine categories, is considered a public health risk and can be legally quarantined by authorities: cholera, infectious tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox, yellow fever, plague, severe acute respiratory syndromes, viral hemorrhagic fevers and influenza strains that can potentially cause a pandemic. According to Dr. Charity Thornan, a Santa Barbara County Health Officer, tuberculosis is curable with treatment, but without treatment, it can be fatal and poses a public health risk because it can be transmitted through the air, which he says is especially true for people with drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis.
Zeferino is not the first patient diagnosed with tuberculosis to stop treatment prematurely and then go missing. In July, Eduardo Cruz, 25, was arrested and quarantined in jail for noncompliance with tuberculosis quarantine orders. Reportedly diagnosed with a contagious strain of the disease in March, Cruz was told to stay at a nearby hotel in Stockton, where medications would be delivered to him daily. Instead, Cruz disappeared. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was later apprehended during a traffic stop, arrested and held in isolation at San Joaquin County Jail.
In fact, health officials say one of the biggest problems with patients undergoing tuberculosis treatment is compliance. Often, those diagnosed with the disease start treatment with the best of intentions, but due to unpleasant side effects from the antibiotics, combined with heavy quarantine restrictions, become disillusioned and stop the treatment and disappear once they start feeling better, even though the tuberculosis has not been completely cured and they are still contagious. Treatment is, at minimum, a six-month course of rifampin intravenous antibiotic. This form of medication is often caustic and painful when administered.
Severe quarantine restrictions, which last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months depending on how long the patient is considered contagious, require that a person suffering from infectious tuberculosis does not leave their property for any reason other than medical care, at which time they have to wear a special mask. They are not allowed visitors inside their home, to go out in public or to use public transportation.
By law, no person who is suffering from a contagious strain of tuberculosis can be forced to take the medication necessary to clear up the infection, but they can be quarantined unless or until they do. Police caution anyone who sees Zeferino or is aware of his whereabouts to keep their physical distance from him and call 911.
By Lindsey Dow