Health Department testing more after school TB case

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Health Department officials are continuing to monitor students and staff from the Charlotte Central School to determine how many people were infected with the tuberculosis bacteria after a school employee developed an active case of the disease.

Last week, health officials said tests done on a portion of the school community found seven children and another adult had been infected, but none were found to have active cases of the disease that commonly infects the lungs.

Positive tests mean a person has been exposed to the TB bacteria. Public health officials emphasized that people who have been infected can't transmit the disease until and unless they get sick, which can come years, sometimes decades, after their initial exposure.

Vermont sees only a handful of TB cases each year, but nationwide school cases are relatively common, officials said.

"As distressing as it is for Vermont, and we're not used to this in Vermont because we have so little TB, it is not unusual," said Dr. W. Kemper Alston, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont and the state's TB consultant.

The eight people who were infected were identified last month after officials tested the 150 people believed to be at highest risk of exposure. They will be treated with antibiotics.

Health workers did TB skin tests Friday on about 260 Charlotte students and on Monday plan to test teachers, staff and students who were absent for the first round of tests. It takes two to three days for the tests, given via a shot under the skin of the forearm, to reveal whether the person has been exposed to the TB bacteria.

Officials expect more positive test results.

The tests will all be repeated in 10 weeks on all whose tests were negative to ensure it didn't develop after the first test was done.

Though the positive tests can provoke anxiety, Alston said it's important to maintain perspective.

"We have to realize these people aren't sick and there is a medication that we can give them to prevent them from getting sick," Alston said.

Vermont epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said it has been a logistical challenge arranging the tests, but the public health community has responded.

"In reality it's one case of TB that can happen anytime, anywhere," she said.

Superintendent Elaine Pinckney, whose district includes the Charlotte school, said there was a meeting between parents, staff and health department officials last month to discuss concerns.

"The school administration is focusing on being a logistical support to the (health department) — providing access to space, access to staff and students," Pinckney said.

Though TB was long a deadly disease, it became controllable with antibiotics in the mid-20th century. There are still occasional flare ups across the country. Tuberculosis is transmitted through the air, but is not as infectious as many other common diseases.

Over the last several years, TB cases, both active and latent, have been reported in a number of states, including California, Wisconsin and South Carolina.

The Charlotte case began last month after an unidentified female employee was found to have an active case of the disease. Citing confidentiality rules, officials can't say how she is responding to treatment.

All of the eight people who later tested positive received follow up chest X-rays and as of Thursday morning none were found to have developed active cases, meaning they could begin a nine-month drug treatment program to eliminate the bacteria, Alston said.

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