SC school employee spreads TB to children

sfretwell@thestate.comJune 4, 2013 

  • What is tuberculosis?

    Tuberculosis has become relatively rare in most North American and European nations.

    Symptoms typically including coughing, night sweats, chest pain when breathing, and coughing up blood, according to the World Health Organization and the Mayo Clinic. People with TB often lose their appetites and lose weight. Most TB cases can be cured when medicines are taken properly, the World Health Organization reports. But if not treated, the disease can be fatal.

Eight children have developed tuberculosis and 50 other people have tested positive for the disease after being exposed by an infected person at an elementary school in Greenwood County, the state’s top health officer said Tuesday.

Catherine Templeton, the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s director, said those infected are being treated for the disease and the person who spread tuberculosis is being kept away from the public. A school employee is believed to have spread the disease, she said.

Templeton said DHEC’s investigation is trying to determine if the school employee infected others outside of the elementary school, which most likely would be people he or she is close to instead of children at other schools.

Children diagnosed with tuberculosis this week attend Ninety Six Primary School, which has about 300 students from kindergarten through second grade. Youngsters who have contracted tuberculosis are not infectious to others, Templeton told The State newspaper.

Templeton met with the DHEC board during a conference call late Tuesday afternoon in Columbia after returning from a trip to Greenwood County.

Tuberculosis is a contagious disease, usually spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. People who breathe in germs can become infected. The disease primarily affects people’s lungs, causing them to cough up blood, sweat excessively at night and experience chest pain while breathing. It can be fatal if not treated.

Ninety Six Mayor Arvest Turner said residents are nervous and want more answers. The tuberculosis issue has caused more concern among Ninety Six residents than anything he remembers, said Turner, who is 71 and grew up in the small town.

“How many other people in our community are affected by this?’’ Turner asked. “It has been sort of a scare in the town itself.’’

Some parents have been up in arms recently as news of DHEC’s health investigation got around the town of nearly 2,000 people some 70 miles northwest of Columbia. Parents have criticized DHEC and the local school district for not telling them sooner about the threat of tuberculosis.

The health agency learned about the potentially infected person March 8 from a local doctor, Templeton said. The agency tested that person and verified tuberculosis. The agency also tested about 30 other people in March, but notes were not sent home to parents until last week.

After the notes went home, DHEC conducted 463 additional tuberculosis tests. The agency learned Monday that 58 people either had the germ or had developed the disease, Templeton said.

The infections in Ninety Six likely occurred in December, January or February, before DHEC knew about the issue, Templeton said. People who have positive skin tests will be given free medications for six to nine months, Templeton said.

Templeton told The State she fired two middle-management employees for failing to inform her that the infected person who spread the disease was being uncooperative after DHEC learned about the problem in March. The person, who state health officials and school officials have declined to name, has been served with an agency order requiring cooperation.

Templeton said other DHEC employees face disciplinary action or termination.

“They didn’t notify me they had an uncooperative” infected person, she said, noting that “I could have drafted a public health order and gotten involved to motivate” the person to be cooperative.

While unhappy with some agency employees, Templeton defended her agency’s action in not notifying the public sooner. She said the agency followed proper protocols, telling those who might be at risk, rather than issuing a blanket statement to the community.

“You contact the people you are concerned about and you go from there,’’ she said. “You notify them there may be an issue, and will they come be tested. People are usually cooperative when you offer them a free test. If one of those individuals comes back positive, you look to determine whether or not they are contagious.’’

Templeton said the local school district was free to notify the public.

The majority of TB cases are treatable and can be cured when medicines are taken properly, the World Health Organization reports. But if not treated, the disease can be fatal. In 2011, more than 1 million people across the world died from tuberculosis, which is more prevalent in Africa and Asia than in North America.

Just because a person tests positive for the presence of tuberculosis does not mean he or she will contract the disease, only that is a possibility. In 2012, tuberculosis rates declined in the United States for the 20th consecutive year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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