Hundreds of Children Exposed to TB in El Paso Hospital

Officials conducting tuberculosis testing of children who were exposed to infected health care worker

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Tuberculosis (TB) is not as common in the US as it once was. Yet cases of the disease remain a concern, as was recently evidenced in West Texas.

Health officials have determined that more than 700 infants and 40 health care workers were exposed to TB at a hospital in El Paso, TX.

Between September 2013 and August 2014, a hospital employee with an active case of TB came to work at Providence Memorial Hospital.

According to the owner of the hospital, Sierra Providence Health Network, the infected employee is no longer working and no cases of active TB have been reported among the health care workers who have been tested.

"Tuberculosis in the United States, though unusual, is more common in certain communities in Texas and California, especially in border communities, like El Paso," explained Steven Davis, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor Medical Center at Irving. "Foreign born persons make up greater than 50 percent of TB cases in Texas."

TB is an infectious disease that affects the lungs. If left untreated, TB can be fatal. However, in many cases, the condition is considered latent, meaning the body's immune system is keeping the bacteria in an inactive state. Active TB, in contrast, is the condition that makes people sick and is contagious. The health care worker in El Paso had the active form of TB.

Dr. Davis told dailyRx News that hospitals can protect their employees and visitors from TB by using precautions like protective masks and rooms with special ventilation when treating patients where TB is suspected. "These types of isolation or airborne precautions should be started promptly for patients who present with TB symptoms like unexplained cough, fevers or weight loss," he said.

"The CDC recommends regular screenings for TB of health care workers based on a facility's risk assessment. Health care workers can be exposed either in the workplace or in the community. Because exposures to persons with active tuberculosis may occur unwittingly in the health care workplace, regular employee screening for latent tuberculosis by skin test or blood test is important to identify and prevent transmission," Dr. Davis said.

People infected with TB are treated with antibiotics for at least six to nine months. In an FAQ sheet posted to its website, the El Paso Department of Public Health stressed that it is very important for patients to finish their prescribed course of antibiotics. That's because they can become sick again if they don't take their medications correctly.

"Tuberculosis can be cured, so public health officials aggressively follow up on contacts of any person with active tuberculosis," Dr. Davis said. He explained that contacts are screened for both active TB, exhibited by cough, fevers or weight loss, and latent TB, in which the patient has no symptoms but has a positive TB skin or blood test. Contacts are usually screened again two to three months after the first test to see if the TB skin or blood test changes from negative to positive, Dr. Davis said.

"Persons with latent TB do not pose a risk to others, but treatment, when appropriate, can prevent future activation," he said.

In a press statement, the El Paso Department of Public Health said that it is working closely with staff at the hospital and has identified 706 patients and 43 employees who were exposed to the infected hospital worker. With the help of Texas state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department is now screening exposed patients for the disease.

According to a report from the Associated Press (AP), Armando Saldivar, spokesperson for the El Paso Department of Public Health, said that it remains unclear why the health worker was not tested for TB until late August if the person had symptoms as far back as December. Health officials are also still looking into how and when the worker became infected, Saldivar told the AP.

"If you are concerned that you have been significantly exposed to a person who has active tuberculosis, contact the public health department or your physician," Dr. Davis said. "They can determine if you had a significant contact that would require screening tests."

Review Date: 
September 23, 2014
Last Updated:
September 25, 2014