Tuberculosis Outbreak Brewing in East Texas

Tuberculosis CDC
Photo: Center for Disease Control

Initially, officials called it an isolated incident of tuberculosis (TB) in East Texas. One case of the contagious bacterial lung infection originated at a local community college. It since has multiplied into four new cases, the direct result of contact with “patient zero” and now, 60 more people are being screened as a precaution.

On May 29, the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) announced that the four new cases were being treated after individuals came into contact with patient zero, who was said to be a student at Kilgore College in Gregg County, by the Kilgore News Herald.

Officials also advised that an additional 60 people were being screened for TB who had possible contact with one of the infected individuals. Earlier in the month, the TDSHS began investigating that first TB case on campus.

“Many contacts who are currently being evaluated for TB will need to be re-evaluated in 8-10 weeks, depending on the last date of contact with the index (first) case,” said TDSHS spokeswoman Christine Mann, according to KTLV-TV.

Mann stated that if a contact is diagnosed with active TB disease, they will begin treatment immediately. However, if a contact is diagnosed with latent TB infection, which is not contagious, they will be offered treatment depending on their medical history and other risk factors.

Patient zero has active TB and is under treatment that could last from 6 months to a year, according to Mann. The duration of the medical care depends on a physician’s orders and on multiple factors such as the degree of infectiousness.

Previously, the Kilgore News Herald reported that college spokesman Chris Craddock said that that officials advised Kilgore College of the suspected student’s TB back on May 6.

In a statement, Craddock told the Longview News-Journal that the college was asked by the state health department for class rolls of the two classes that the student in question attended. TDSHS encouraged TB precautionary testing for students and faculty who may have been exposed to the communicable bacterial infection.

Said Craddick, the infected student spent a “relatively limited amount of time on campus” and was “only taking two classes.”

The following week, the agency reached out to locals who may have come into contact with this student and recommended the same precautionary measures.

Patient zero’s identity has not been released. Craddock said the college did not notify the public initially only because TDSHS became involved in the investigation and took over the role of handling notifications, according to the News-Journal.

Mann told the News-Journal that TB is “not as easy to contract as the flu or common cold” and is usually more likely to get through close contact. The four who tested TB positive were named as “close contacts” of that student. They are receiving treatment.

The agency spokeswoman did not provide an exact number of people being screened beyond “approximately 60″ because she emphasized that “the situation continues to change,” although she identified that less than 20 of those being tested were from Kilgore College.

According to the TDSHS, the state experienced 1,222 cases of TB in 2013, which is a rate of 4.6 per 100,000 population. Although TB can strike anyone, it is more likely to be diagnosed in people born in a foreign country where the pulmonary infection is prevalent. It is a bacterial infection that usually strikes the lungs. It can also strike other parts of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain.

TB is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It spreads through the air from the coughs, sneezes, wheezes and other respiratory fluids of a person with an active infection.

It is not spread through shaking someone’s hand, sharing food or drink, touching bed linens or toilet seats, sharing toothbrushes, or kissing says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Not everyone infected with the TB bacteria becomes sick. There are two types of the condition – the infection and the disease. People with latent TB are infected but have no symptoms as their bodies have natural antibodies to fight the infection. Nor are they contagious. However, the CDC cautions that if TB bacteria become active in the body and begin to multiply, a person will experience the symptoms of tuberculosis.

Those symptoms are similar to a bad cold or flu. They include a bad cough that lasts three weeks or longer, chest pain, coughing up blood or mucous, weakness or fatigue, weight loss often associated with no appetite, chills, fever and night sweats.

Mann also told the News-Journal that, when diagnosed, a person is placed on “respiratory isolation” during the first two weeks of treatment. Once removed from isolation, that person is no longer considered infectious and can return to normal activities including work and school.

In Texas, 51 percent of reported TB cases in 2013 were among Hispanics, 19 percent were among African Americans, 14 percent were among Whites, and 16 percent were among Asians. TB rates are higher along the Texas-Mexico border. One case was reported as extremely drug resistent.

Co-infection with TB and diabetes is also more common along the border than in the rest of the state. TB/HIV co-infection is more commonly found in urban areas of Texas. The CDC lists co-infections among the challenges that make it more difficult for the body to fight TB. Others are drug or alcohol abuse.

Tuberculosis is considered an ancient disease that dates back to over 4,000 years ago. It has been known by many names along the way including consumption and the white plague. It is treated with antibiotics. Prior to modern medicine, TB was a death sentence for many.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.


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