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47 infected with TB
Wayne Farms employees test positive; X-rays to determine if germs active, contagious

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

Skin tests compiled Tuesday revealed that 47 of the 167 Wayne Farms employees tested for tuberculosis were infected.

Lung X-rays were performed Tuesday to determine whether any of the 47 has active tuberculosis, the only type that is contagious. A physician will read the X-rays on Thursday.

The tests were triggered when a former Wayne Farms employee was diagnosed with active tuberculosis. He was hospitalized and is under treatment. The employee left Wayne Farms about two months ago.

The Morgan County Department of Health injected the forearms of the Wayne Farms employees with testing solution Oct. 10. Health officials returned to the plant Friday to evaluate the injection sites.

Of those tested, 72 had direct contact with the hospitalized employee, health officials determined. The remaining 127 voluntarily requested the free testing.

Of the 72 who had contact with the hospitalized employee, 38 percent (27 employees) were infected with the tuberculosis bacteria, according to Scott Jones, interim director of the division of tuberculosis control with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Of those who had not had contact with the employee, 22 percent (20 employees) were infected.

“That may be more a reflection of the rate of infection in their country of origin,” Jones said.

Foreign-born people have a higher infection rate than those born in the United States. Jones said the high infection rate among those who had not had contact with the diseased employee likely reflected the fact that many Wayne Farms employees were born outside the United States.

In the general Alabama population, the infection rate for tuberculosis is between 8 and 10 percent, Jones said.

Another 22 employees, who had a past history of positive tuberculin skin tests, received sputum tests instead of skin tests, Jones said. None of those who received sputum tests had evidence of active tuberculosis, Jones said.

Jones said none of the tested employees had obvious symptoms indicating the presence of active tuberculosis.

“We have no evidence of active disease,” Jones said. “We’re very pleased with these results. This is kind of a success story. We know what we’ve got, and we know what to do.”

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease. Contact with poultry cannot cause the infection in humans.

Jones said 20 to 50 percent of those exposed to someone with active disease typically become infected.

90% never get it

Ninety percent of those infected with tuberculosis never develop symptoms, and thus never become contagious, because their immune systems keep the infection in check, Jones said. Their bodies continue to harbor the bacteria, however, and deterioration in their immune systems at any time in their lives can trigger active tuberculosis.

Jones said the health department would encourage each of the 47 Wayne Farms employees who tested positive to begin a six-month course of isoniazid in pill form. The medication eliminates the infection. It also can cause vitamin deficiencies, so usually it is administered with vitamins.

The health department can require employees with active disease to undergo the treatment. It offers the medication free to those with latent tuberculosis, but cannot require them to take it.

“It would be beneficial to the community and to these individuals if they were to accept the offer and take their preventive therapy,” Jones said.

Health Officer Dr. Don Williamson, who heads the Department of Public Health, said last week that in 2006 there were 53 cases of tuberculosis reported in Alabama in people who were born in other countries. About half were immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.

“This may be the best opportunity these individuals have ever had for preventive treatment,” Jones said, of the Wayne Farms employees who tested positive. “We want to make sure they have the opportunity to take preventive therapy because that’s the best way to protect against future cases.”

The infection rate at Wayne Farms does not constitute an epidemic, Jones said, because only the one individual has tuberculosis disease, which is the active form of tuberculosis.

According to the state health department, Morgan County had six confirmed new cases of active tuberculosis in each of the last two years.

In September 2006, officials administered skin tests to 74 Wayne Farms employees after they had contact with an employee suspected of having the disease. Twenty-six tested positive.

Left untreated, active tuberculosis is fatal in more than half the cases within five years.

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