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Another worker has TB?
Wayne Farms to test 600 plant employees

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Health Department officials said Wednesday they believe a second Wayne Farms employee has active tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease that is deadly, if untreated.

On receipt of the news, Wayne Farms said it would require all of the employees at its fresh processing chicken plant to undergo TB skin tests, to be administered by the Morgan County Health Department, on Monday. Health workers will complete the two-part skin tests Oct. 31.

200 already tested

The plant has 849 employees. About 200 have already received skin tests or sputum tests and will not be re-tested.

"Company and Health Department officials have decided to test the remaining 600 employees at the facility as a precaution and to allay community concerns," Wayne Farms said in a statement.

Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said the state health department did not require testing of everyone in the plant, but encouraged it, and agreed to conduct the tests.

The TB scare began when a former employee of Wayne Farms tested positive for active TB about two months after leaving the company. He was hospitalized and, on Oct. 11, the Morgan County Health Department administered TB skin tests at Wayne Farms.

The tests were mandatory for 72 employees who had close contact with the hospitalized former employee, labeled the "index case" by health officials. Another 127 employees at the fresh processing plant voluntarily submitted to the skin tests.

The tests identified 47 employees infected with TB. The most recently diagnosed employee was not one of those who was thought to have had close contact with the index case, according to Scott Jones, interim director of the division of tuberculosis control with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The county health department performed chest X-rays on all of those employees infected with TB to determine if they had active tuberculosis.

On Oct. 18, state health officials said one of the 47 had a suspicious X-ray result.

The suspect employee immediately began taking anti-TB drugs, Jones said.

This week, a sputum test of the suspect employee indicated the presence of active TB disease, according to Pam Barrett, field services coordinator of the state's tuberculosis control division.

Between 8 and 10 percent of the Alabama population is infected with TB bacteria, Jones said. It is held in check by most people's immune system. Latent tuberculosis is not contagious and causes no symptoms. It can become active at a later date, if the immune system is compromised.

Barrett said Wednesday both the index case and the most recently diagnosed employee were born in Mexico or Central America. She said she did not know the country of their birth.

Immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala have particularly high rates of TB infection, according to state health officials.

Wayne Farms and health officials declined to provide the name of either employee, citing health confidentiality laws.

Singleton said Wayne Farms will require any employees testing positive after Monday's skin tests to have X-rays to see if they have active TB.

The state health department encouraged Wayne Farms to require all employees to submit to tests, Singleton said.

"Required is probably not the right word," Singleton said. "The health department said, 'We are certainly open to and available to help you test as many people as you want to test, including everybody in the plant.' We said we thought that was a good idea."

Barrett said health officials suspect the recently diagnosed employee did not catch the disease from the index case, but from another, unknown source.

In addition to testing Wayne Farms employees, Barrett said the health department is testing others who had close contact with the two individuals. All family members are included.

Barrett said she did not know if either employee has school-age children. Health officials with access to this information were not immediately available Wednesday. Barrett said testing would take place in the schools only if a school-age child tested positive for active TB.

"We do a thorough investigation of every contact — household, work, church, leisure, social — in every case," Barrett said. "Every individual case results in a unique investigation. We screen every aspect."

A year ago, a Wayne Farms employee suspected of having active tuberculosis triggered the testing of 74 employees at the fresh processing plant. Twenty-six tested positive on skin tests.

On Monday, State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and State Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, met with Wayne Farms officials to discuss the tuberculosis infections.

Orr said one issue they discussed was whether Wayne Farms should begin testing all newly hired employees for TB before allowing them to begin work.

"I expect Wayne Farms to be a good corporate citizen, but when there is concern and fear in the community because of this health issue, doing nothing is unacceptable," Orr said Monday. "They've got to determine the best legal options to address this."

About TB

In its active form, tuberculosis is highly contagious. Twenty to 50 percent of those who come into close contact with an individual with active TB become infected. While deadly if untreated, available medications are effective in curing the disease.

TB can occur in many parts of the body. Because it is an airborne bacteria, only TB in the airways — usually the lungs — is contagious.

Symptoms of active TB in the lungs:

  • Feelings of sickness or weakness.

  • Weight loss.

  • Fever.

  • Night sweats.

  • Coughing.

  • Chest pain.

  • Coughing up blood.

    SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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