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Wayne Farms to test all workers
1,300 employees in Morgan County chicken plants to be required to submit to TB examinations

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

A Wayne Farms spokesman said Thursday the company will require all 1,300 employees at its three Morgan County plants to submit to tuberculosis skin tests.

Also Thursday, State Health Officer Don Williamson held a press conference in Montgomery, focused exclusively on two active TB cases at a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Decatur.

One former employee was diagnosed and hospitalized two months after leaving the plant. In response to the diagnosis, health officials on Oct. 11 administered skin tests to 167 Wayne Farms employees. Health officials said Wednesday that they believe one of the tested employees also has the disease.

"It's not in any way out of control," Williamson said.

Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said the Health Department did not require testing at all three plants.

"They haven't required us to do it, but we've certainly been in discussions with them," Singleton said. "Based on the amount of community concern out there, we decided it was a good idea. We offered that up and they are certainly in agreement."

Of the employees tested, 47 were infected with TB. Only people with active TB disease are contagious. Health officials encouraged all 47 to begin taking an anti-tuberculosis drug, which the Health Department offers for free.

State and federal funds will be used to pay for the tests, said Pam Barrett, field services coordinator of the state's Tuberculosis Control Division.

"All supplies, drugs, et cetera, are provided by the (state) TB program," Barrett said.

She said the TB skin tests cost $12 for a 50-dose vial.

On Wednesday, Wayne Farms announced it would require the 600 untested employees at the fresh processing plant to undergo skin tests. The testing at the fresh plant, which is where both diagnosed employees worked, will begin Monday.

"I don't know exactly when the testing (at the other plants) will start, but as soon as the Health Department says it's ready," Singleton said. "I think it will be right away."

Williamson said TB is less contagious than mumps or chicken pox.

"We're not talking about one-time exposure or across the room," Williamson said. "For most people it takes extended exposure" to be infected by the bacteria.

A Health Department official said last week that 20 to 50 percent of those exposed to someone with active disease typically become infected.

Only 10 percent of those infected by TB develop active TB disease, Williamson said, and only active TB disease is contagious.

'More challenging'

Williamson said the large number of foreign-born employees at Wayne Farms' fresh processing plant make it "more challenging" to control the TB because so many of the employees were exposed in their country of origin.

He also stressed that, while TB has a high fatality rate in many countries, it rarely is fatal in the United States. A four-drug combination, administered for six to nine months, cures 99 percent of "compliant patients," he said.

Williamson said both diagnosed workers were foreign-born Hispanics.

Barrett refused to say whether the diagnosed employees have school-age children.

"We do not discuss the specific details of cases," Barrett said. "I can't tell you if there are children involved."

She said any time a case is diagnosed, all household contacts are evaluated.

"We do very intense screening of children who are contacts to people with active TB," Barrett said. "As long as the child is not symptomatic and has a normal chest X-ray, there is no reason whatsoever that a child who is a contact of someone with TB shouldn't go about their normal activities."

She said children under 15 who have been in close contact with active TB patients are routinely put on a medication that cures most forms of TB, regardless of their skin-test results.

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease. The bacteria usually are put into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People nearby who inhale these bacteria may become infected.

Alabama has about 200 cases of active TB disease annually. Last year, nearly one-fourth of the cases were in foreign-born residents, Williamson said.

Morgan County had six active TB cases in 2006 and six in 2005, according to state health records.

Contact with poultry cannot cause the infection in humans, and infected poultry workers cannot contaminate meat.

Williamson said the skin test involves injecting tuberculosis protein under the skin. After about two days, TB-infected individuals will develop redness and skin hardness at the injection site.

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