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August 15, 2013

TB linked to death of Greenwood-area man

S.C. tuberculosis outbreak: A 79-year-old singer died last spring after socializing with a school janitor who is suspected of spreading tuberculosis in Greenwood County, where more than 50 schoolchildren have been infected with germs from the disease.

A 79-year-old singer died last spring after socializing with a school janitor who is suspected of spreading tuberculosis in Greenwood County, where more than 50 schoolchildren have been infected with germs from the disease.

The singer’s health “markedly declined” beginning in December, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the same month he and the janitor, a fellow member of an area musical group, performed together, the CDC said.

At the time, both men appear to have been infectious with tuberculosis, says an Aug. 7 CDC report The State newspaper obtained Thursday. The singer died after checking into a Georgia hospital in March, the report said.

The CDC study does not say conclusively that tuberculosis killed the 79-year-old man, but it suggests the disease played a role. Tuberculosis is spread primarily through the air when an infected person coughs, speaks – or sings. TB was found in the man’s body at the time of his death, records show.

Thursday’s revelation provides chilling new details about the Greenwood TB outbreak that has left the tiny community of Ninety Six in an uproar. The report for the first time confirms that someone associated with the sickened school janitor has died – and it raises questions about why S.C. health officials never acknowledged the death publicly.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control already is under fire for failing to tell parents for more than two months about the tuberculosis-sickened janitor and for failing to test their children for tuberculosis until May 31. Tests found that 53 children had been infected with the germ. They are being treated now to prevent the disease from becoming lethal. The janitor is believed to be the main source of the tuberculosis at Ninety Six Primary School.

It wasn’t clear Thursday what DHEC knew about the 79-year-old singer’s death or when. An agency spokesman provided a sparse, two-sentence response to questions from The State newspaper about the man’s death.

But one state policymaker said he was stunned by news that someone associated with the infected janitor has passed away. TB can be treated, but can be lethal without proper medication.

“This news leaves me numb, very numb,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who has been critical of DHEC’s response to the disease outbreak. “It speaks to the serious nature of what we are dealing with and why many of us continue to press for answers.”

The federal report said the two men had performed in a singing group together for “many years” and that health officials learned after he died that he had tuberculosis. The cause of death was listed as complications associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome. But people who already are sick with other diseases often are more susceptible to tuberculosis if they are exposed to the germ.

According to the CDC, the 79-year-old had been suffering from health problems associated with a “cerebrovascular accident” during the past three years. Symptoms of “weight loss, extreme fatigue, anorexia and fevers worsened between December and early March 2013,” the report said. He died after the janitor visited him in the hospital in early March, the report said.

CDC officials declined requests for interviews by The State newspaper to explain more about the report, referring all questions to DHEC. In an email, DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said the 79-year-old man was part of the agency’s investigation of tuberculosis in Greenwood County, but “we do not have any information beyond what has been published by the CDC.”

It’s possible that the 79-year-old infected the school janitor, rather than the janitor infecting him, according to the CDC’s report. But the report provides conflicting information on that subject. It says the school janitor, who is 71, likely became infectious in May 2012. The 79-year-old singer likely became infectious in September 2012, the report says.

The report was sent to DHEC officials Aug. 7, records show.

Like Lourie, an attorney who is investigating DHEC’s response to the TB outbreak said the federal report was disturbing.

“This is eye-opening,” said John Reckenbeil, an attorney representing three former DHEC workers who say they attempted to jump-start DHEC’s stalled TB investigation but were put off by high-level agency staff. They have sued for damages.

“The severity of this disease was taken too lightly by the director and the central office” in Columbia, he said.

The janitor suspected of infecting people in Greenwood County was sent to a secure medical facility in Columbia two months ago to protect the public while he recovers.

Tuberculosis is primarily a disease of the lungs characterized by coughing, spitting up blood and chest pain. It is less common in the United States today than it was decades ago but remains a persistent threat to public health. The Greenwood County outbreak was the worst in that county in about a decade.

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