Twenty-seven people tested positive for tuberculosis infection at Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, Kansas on Mar. 18, after a single case of tuberculosis disease prompted testing of the 300-plus community of students and staff.
"The number of individuals with TB infection does not exceed what we would anticipate in this setting,” said Lougene Marsh, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment in a press release. “Of course, we had hoped we wouldn’t find any additional TB cases, but we knew this was a possibility. That’s why we took such thorough steps to test everyone who might have been in close contact with the first confirmed case of TB disease.”
Last year, 40 cases of tuberculosis were diagnosed in Kansas, while in 2013 there were 36 cases. Countrywide, there were 9,582 cases in 2013, but the disease used to be much more prevalent in the U.S. In 1953, which is the earliest year CDC has data for, there were 84,304 cases.
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the pathogen, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It can cause serious respiratory disease that result in coughing, coughing blood, pain while breathing, fatigue, fever, weight loss, organ damage and even death. However, there is a difference between a tuberculosis infection, or latent tuberculosis, and tuberculosis disease, or active tuberculosis.
The 27 people who tested positive for tuberculosis infection do not have symptoms and are not contagious to other people. However, without proper antibiotic treatment, tuberculosis infection can turn into tuberculosis disease, which causes the aforementioned symptoms and can spread from one person to another through the air, like when a person with tuberculosis disease coughs or speaks. To prevent an outbreak of tuberculosis disease, those who tested positive for infection will take chest x-rays and begin a course of antibiotics to kill the tuberculosis bacteria that is latent in their bodies, according to health authorities.
Those who were in class with the initial patient during the most recent semester, but who tested negative for infection, will be re-tested May 5 because it can take up to eight weeks for the bacteria to show up in a test.
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention notes that most people who inhale tuberculosis bacteria can fight off the illness, keeping the infection in a permanent latent state. However, those with compromised immune systems (like those with HIV, diabetes or substance abuse conditions) run a much higher risk of developing tuberculosis disease when exposed.
Tuberculosis is second only to HIV/AIDS as the “greatest killer worldwide” because of a single infection; worldwide, 9 million people got tuberculosis disease, and 1.5 million died from it, according to the World Health Organization.
There is a vaccine for tuberculosis, but it isn’t commonly administered in the U.S. Instead, it would be normally given to small children in countries where the disease is common, like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia and Pakistan. Currently, Europe is grappling with rising numbers of tuberculosis disease, including drug-resistant tuberculosis. The condition, which is very difficult to treat, is caused when people with tuberculosis begin but don't finish their antibiotics regimen, contract tuberculosis again after undergoing treatment or have spent time with others who have drug-resistant TB, according to the CDC. Health officials in Europe warn that it could make defeat of the disease unlikely until the next century.