In 2015, Zee Pinkerton was navigating the unique difficulties of high school: football and basketball practices, upcoming math tests and school dances. At the same time, he was recovering from an injured knee, and he couldn’t shake a rattling chest cough.
“I was coughing for about two weeks, and then I lost ten pounds in a short amount of time really quickly,” said Zee. He was also experiencing high fever and night sweats.
Doctors scrambled to confirm a diagnosis. They thought flu, pneumonia and bronchitis. But the corresponding treatments weren’t working. Zee was only getting worse.
One of Zee’s classmates remembers a conversation with Zee at the time. “[Zee] was like, ‘I think I’m sick.’ I said, ‘You should go home.’ And [Zee] was like, ‘No, dude, I think something is really, really wrong with me.”
Finally, after multiple unfruitful doctor visits and two months of uncertainty, a blood test and a chest X-ray confirmed that Zee was suffering from tuberculosis (TB), a serious infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Zee knew just how dangerous TB could be: his biological mother had died from TB back in his native Ethiopia when he was just seven years old.
“Oh man, it was really scary,” said Zee. “I didn’t know if I would live or die.”
Zee was also confused: He had been vaccinated against TB as a child in Ethiopia, and he had received the standard TB skin test less than ten years earlier. Since then, he hadn’t come into contact with anyone who had the disease.
But doctors explained to Zee that he had likely been living with a latent TB infection (LTBI) for years, meaning the disease was present in his body, but was not an active, virulent infection. The also explained that the traditional TB skin test he had received in 2007 has limitations in diagnosing LTBIs – rather, a blood test is the best way to confirm or deny the presence of LTBI. Today’s innovative medtech diagnostics can diagnose for TB with greater than 97% specificity.
“I had no idea I had carried the latent infection for all those years,” said Zee. “I was active for about two or three weeks, and I was spreading it to a lot of people and didn’t know it. If I knew I had TB, I mean, I would have stayed at home.”
Upon his diagnosis, Zee was quarantined at his home in Kansas for two months, while public health officials screened the community for the disease. Fifty of Zee’s classmates and Zee’s foster parents tested positive and were treated successfully for LTBI.
Now, Zee is determined to help educate others about LTBI and help prevent future outbreaks.
“TB is not only an international problem,” he said. “It’s a domestic problem too. And it needs to be tackled.”
Zee is right: TB is one of the biggest infectious-disease killers in the world, causing 1.6 million deaths in 2017 alone. In other words, TB claims a life every minute.
As part of his mission, Zee has become involved in a TB community advocacy group “We Are TB,” and has lobbied lawmakers for the need to fund more research into preventing and treating TB. He attends the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where he’s taking public health classes.
“I had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. and talk to senators and try to raise awareness and try to raise funding for research,” he said. “If we tell our story, and tell people to get tested, we can reduce the amount of TB cases, both locally in state and internationally, and that’s our goal.” For more information about advancements in medtech diagnostic testing, click here.