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Health officials question 1 TB test
46 Wayne Farms employees tested do not have active disease

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

The lung X-ray of one of 47 tuberculosis-infected Wayne Farms employees failed to rule out the presence of active tuberculosis disease, according to a state health official.

The other 46 X-rayed employees do not have active tuberculosis, said Scott Jones, interim director of the division of tuberculosis control with the Alabama Department of Public Health, and therefore pose no risk to others.

"The X-ray is questionable," Jones said. "We're not saying this person has active TB disease. There's a question mark, and the physician has ordered some additional lab tests. The preliminary lab tests that we already have on this individual are all negative.

Treated as active

"Out of an abundance of caution, we're going to initiate therapy as if it is (active) TB. At this point in time, we can't confirm whether it is or not."

If the employee has active TB, he could be contagious. If his TB is latent — meaning his immune system is holding the TB infection in check — he is not contagious. The employee has been taken off work.

The health department tested 167 employees at the Decatur poultry plant beginning Oct. 11.

The testing was triggered when a former employee went to a doctor with symptoms that turned out to be active tuberculosis. The employee, who left Wayne Farms about two months ago, was hospitalized and is under treatment.

Of the tested employees, 72 had close contact with the hospitalized employee. Thirty-eight percent of those employees tested positive.

The employee with a questionable X-ray result was not one of those who was known to have had contact with the hospitalized employee.

Another 127 employees voluntarily submitted to the skin tests. Twenty-two percent of them tested positive.

The general population in Alabama has an infection rate of between 8 and 10 percent, Jones said.

Jones said he did not know whether the suspect employee was born outside the United States. He declined to say in what country the hospitalized former employee was born.

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

Health officials are placing the suspect employee on the same four-drug regimen that is used for active tuberculosis cases. The drugs do not immediately eliminate the risk of contagion in an active TB case, Jones said.

Tuberculosis is an airborne bacterial disease. It cannot be contracted or transmitted through live chickens or meat.

The additional testing of the suspect employee will involve microscopic evaluation of his sputum. Even if that evaluation is negative for TB, Jones said, a sputum culture will be performed. The culture takes up to eight weeks for a definitive result.

"The initial results are all negative. I don't want us to lose sight of that," Jones said. "I know there's already some hysteria up there. That's unfortunate."

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said Thursday he has scheduled a meeting with Wayne Farms officials about the TB infections.

"If we have a problem with a high number of employees that have been exposed to tuberculosis in their facility, we need to combat that," Orr said. "It's a public health concern."

In a press release, Orr said the infections suggest a need for immigration reform.

"Immigration is not just an economic issue or a legal issue," Orr said. "It is also a serious public health issue that must be resolved."

Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said the meeting would be an opportunity for the company to describe its hiring practices to Orr, and the efforts it takes to protect its employees' health.

"It's in our best interest to solve these kinds of problems, just like it is in the interest of everybody else," Singleton said.

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