Resisting Tuberculosis Testing

From the August 2016 Desktop News When the rate of tuberculosis in Marion, Alabama, spiked in 2014 and 2015, killing four people and infecting more than 150 others, public health officials offered free testing and treatment to stop the outbreak—but few were willing to participate until monetary compensation was offered as an incentive.

The resistance perplexed Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, and when she learned that junior psychology major Towanda Pettway, a first-generation college student and mother of two, lived in Marion, she encouraged Pettway to tackle the question for her class project.

Pettway developed a survey, conducted interviews with local residents and health experts, analyzed her data, and found that, among other issues, one of the key problems was the communal distrust of local health workers. Residents worried that the doctors, nurses, and clinicians would breach confidentiality, leading to gossip, embarrassment, and shame within the community, so they chose not to be tested or share who they had been in contact with.

At the spring Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference at UA, Pettway presented her findings and won the first place oral presentation prize for the social sciences division.

“Winning first prize at the conference has been the pinnacle of Towanda’s academic career,” Lichtenstein said. “It has simply changed her life.”

Pettway says that she learned a lot about how to conduct research in the class and that it has inspired her to pursue more research opportunities in the future.

In the fall, as part of an independent study course, Pettway will team up with Lichtenstein to develop the project further and co-write a paper on the findings for publication. For the publication they will focus on how public health cutbacks contributed to the tuberculosis outbreak.