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Hundreds may be exposed to TB at Fairfax Co. school

Friday - 6/21/2013, 5:14pm  ET

Three with tuberculosis at local school

WTOP's Michelle Basch reports.

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Health officials: 2 TB cases are connected

Kathy Stewart, WTOP

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WASHINGTON - The Fairfax County Health Department is launching an investigation after three people were diagnosed with active tuberculosis at Robert Lee High School.

Approximately 430 students and staff who may have been exposed to the disease are being asked to make an appointment for a skin test for tuberculosis, says Dr. Barbara Andrino, the health department's tuberculosis physician.

Two letters went out to the school community -- the first sent June 17 alerting them to the diagnosed individuals and the second to the potentially exposed group, said Dr. Gloria Addo Ayensu, director of the Fairfax County Health Department, during a press conference Thursday.

Investigators tracked the people close to the patients who spent more than 24 hours with them or were with them in "confined spaces" to alert them to their potential exposure.

"The first individual was diagnosed in December 2012 and a contact investigation was initiated at that time and completed. Two additional students from the same school were diagnosed with TB earlier this month," Addo Ayensu said.

She later backed off that statement, unwilling to confirm the patients were students or staff to protect their identities.

The health department says all three individuals were diagnosed with active TB. Patients with the active form of the infection are sick, and they are contagious and could spread the disease.

Clinics are being set up at Lee High school beginning Friday. Additional testing clinics will be set up next Monday through Friday. Those tested will be asked to return to see if they test positive for the bacteria.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection spread through the air that typically attacks the lungs but can affect other parts of the body like the kidneys and spine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

TB is spread from one person to another when an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks. It can only be spread when the patient is exhibiting "active" symptoms. The disease can be treated with a course of medications usually requiring six to nine months of treatment.

Addo Ayensu would not say if a patient's travel was the source of the infection, but said most of the cases they see are in foreign-born patients. The Fairfax County Health Department sees, on average, 90 cases of active tuberculosis a year.

The symptoms of TB include:

  • coughing that lasts several weeks or coughing up blood
  • pain in the chest
  • weight loss
  • weakness or fatigue
  • no appetite
  • fever or chills or night sweats

However not all patients experience symptoms and have what medical officials call latent TB. Although these patients cannot spread the bacteria, they are at risk for becoming ill and developing active TB. These patients are typically given medications to kill the bacteria and prevent the spread of the disease.

According to the health department, about one-third of the world's population has latent TB.

"Fairfax County is a diverse community so it is expected that some people in the community have latent TB infection," the health department said in its written statement.

WTOP's Megan Cloherty and Michelle Basch contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

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