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32 more positive TB tests
Results from testing Wayne Farms workers still being processed

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Another 32 Wayne Farms employees tested positive for tuberculosis infection Wednesday, bringing the running total of employees with positive skin-test results to 79.

State Health Officer Don Williamson said health workers administered 573 skin tests Monday. Of those tests, the results of 203 had been read Wednesday evening. Thirty-two of the 203, or 16 percent, tested positive.

Williamson said the remaining 370 test results, all second-shift employees at the Decatur fresh processing plant, were still being read Wednesday evening. Reading the test requires visualizing the skin's reaction to an injected inoculin two days after the injection.

On Oct. 11, health workers tested 167 employees. Forty-seven tested positive, and follow-up tests showed one had active tuberculosis disease.

Active tuberculosis disease is contagious. Latent TB infection is not contagious, but it lasts for life if not treated. It can progress to active TB disease if the immune system later is compromised. About 10 percent of those with a TB infection, who do not take medication, eventually develop active TB disease.

Encouraged to take medication

Health officials have encouraged all employees who tested positive to take a TB medication, called isoniazid or INH, but cannot mandate them to take medication unless they have active TB disease.

Up to 50 percent of those in close contact with an individual with active disease become infected by the airborne bacteria. Coughing, laughing and talking can transmit the disease. Humans cannot contract or transmit TB through chickens or poultry meat.

Health officials initially refused to provide test results Wednesday, saying they might alarm the public.

"If I told you that 'X' number of people tested positive, and you printed that without knowing what the follow-up X-ray results are, it could actually cause much more community alarm than if we tell you after everything has been completed," said Pam Barrett, field services coordinator of the State Department of Public Health's Tuberculosis Control Division.

"You will not get the numbers tonight," Barrett continued in an e-mail. "I have clarified with our legal staff and the information you are requesting is not public record. A statement will be made when all the results of this investigation are known."

Williamson intervened Wednesday evening and personally communicated the preliminary testing results.

"They weren't trying to in any way obfuscate or not provide the information," Williamson said. "Their concern is if they give one number and it turns out to be a different number, it gets confusing. These are preliminary numbers and could change, but I don't see any reason not to tell you what we've got."

The first onslaught of testing, performed by the Morgan County Health Department under the direction of the State Department of Public Health, was triggered when doctors diagnosed a former Wayne Farms employee with active TB disease.

Mandatory testing began of those Wayne Farms employees who had been in close contact with the hospitalized former employee, but all employees were invited to submit to skin tests.

One employee turned out to have active TB disease. He was not among those who had close contact with the former employee, and his diagnosis led the health department to expand its testing to include all employees of the fresh processing plant.

Both employees with active disease worked at the fresh processing plant, which employs 849.

Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton said the Health Department, at Wayne Farms' invitation, plans to test the 500 employees at two other Decatur plants in the near future.

"We want the testing to begin (on the remaining employees) as soon as possible," Singleton said. "We're just waiting on the Health Department."

Stan Hayman, director of sales and marketing at the Decatur plants, said Wayne Farms intends to reimburse the state Department of Public Health through a donation to its outreach programs.

"We asked, and they said there is no system set up for us to write them a check directly," Hayman said. "Once we come up with a way of calculating the cost, we will donate the money to community outreach programs."

Barrett declined to divulge the countries of origin of two Wayne Farms employees with active tuberculosis, but said they were born outside the United States. The incidence rate of tuberculosis varies dramatically in different countries, and is particularly high in Guatemala and Mexico.

"They are Latino and the country of origin should not matter," Barrett said.

She also declined to divulge whether the two individuals with active tuberculosis 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."

Eight to 10 percent of Alabamians have latent TB.

Positive skin tests indicate an individual is infected with the TB bacteria. Those with positive TB skin tests then receive X-rays to determine if their lungs show signs of active TB disease.

Williamson said all those who tested positive in Monday's tests will receive X-rays on Thursday.

TB symptoms

Only active tuberculosis is contagious. Latent TB is not contagious and has no symptoms.

Symptoms of active TB disease include the following:

  • A cough lasting three or more weeks that may produce discolored or bloody sputum.

  • Unintended weight loss.

  • Fatigue.

  • Slight fever.

  • Night sweats.

  • Chills.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Pain with breathing or coughing.

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