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Final TB count: 212 test positive at 1 chicken plant

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

All of the employees at the Wayne Farms fresh processing plant in Decatur have received tuberculosis skin tests and 212 of them tested positive.

Health workers read and tabulated a final batch of tests Wednesday, said Scott Jones, interim director of the State Department of Public Health's Tuberculosis Control Division. Of the 598 tests administered Monday, 165 tested positive.

In skin tests administered to 167 fresh processing employees Oct. 11, 47 tested positive. One of the 47 has active tuberculosis disease, which is contagious.

All told, 28 percent of those who received skin tests at the fresh processing plant tested positive.

Jones said all 165 employees with positive TB results in the most recent tests would receive chest X-rays on Thursday. Doctors will evaluate those X-rays early next week to determine if any of them have signs of active TB disease.

"We have two (X-ray) technicians in the Division of TB Control to cover the entire state," Jones said. "For this situation, we've rearranged some clinics. We've made this a priority, so we have both of our technicians (assigned to Decatur and) working as a team to get them done."

Wayne Farms Sales and Marketing Director Stan Hayman said Wednesday the company offered to reimburse the state for the cost of the tuberculosis control efforts.

Jones said Thursday that he has a better idea.

"I appreciate their offer," he said.

"If Wayne Farms is interested in investing something, my recommendation to them would be to invest within their own facility to establish a pre-employment screening routine.

"If their intent is to invest, I wish they'd think about ways they can invest toward the future as opposed to reimbursing for a one-time event."

Latent TB infection is not contagious, but it remains in the body for life in the absence of treatment. About 10 percent of latent TB infections eventually become active TB disease, usually because of a compromised immune system.

Testing began after doctors diagnosed a former Wayne Farms employee with active TB disease. The testing revealed that another employee also had active disease. Health officials believe the second employee has a different strain of TB than the first employee and caught the disease from a different source.

In addition to testing other employees at the fresh processing plant, health officials said they tested all others known to have had contact with the two men. Jones refused to say whether either individual has school-age children.

Jones said the Health Department soon would give skin tests to all employees at two other Wayne Farms plants in Morgan County. The company employs 1,300 in the county.

"(Health Officer) Don Williamson asked us to evaluate the entire work force because of the concerns in the community and we're going to proceed with that," Jones said. "This is a very large undertaking. We've expanded this in response to concerns in the community, as a precaution."

Hayman said Wayne Farms welcomes the expanded testing.

"The community concern about this is an issue, but we also have 1,300 people who don't want to have to worry about their health when they come to work," Hayman said. "They have families who want them to work in a safe environment."

Jones said he was not surprised at the number of Wayne Farms employees who tested positive.

"The majority of the folks that we're dealing with in this situation are foreign born," Jones said. "I would expect about 30 percent of them to test positive."

Both employees with active TB disease are Hispanics born in countries with a high incidence of TB, health officials said.

Coughing, laughing or talking can transmit the airborne tuberculosis bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 minutes of close contact with a person who has active TB disease will cause up to 50 percent of people to become infected.

People who are contagious almost always are obviously ill, said Dr. Scott Harris, an infectious disease specialist who works in the TB clinic at the Morgan County Health Department.

Humans cannot catch TB bacteria from chickens, and the bacteria cannot be transmitted through chicken meat.

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