Tuberculosis not a worry for students headed back to school

WASHINGTON – Could the new school year bring a new outbreak of tuberculosis to the Washington area? After last year, some parents are concerned.

Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Va., confirmed three cases of tuberculosis, or TB, during the last academic school year — one in December and two in June.

But Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Medical Center, says there is no need for panic now that school is back in session.

“We know how to treat TB. We don’t wait to test for it and (parents) shouldn’t be worried when there is a sudden outbreak,” DeBiasi says.

According to DeBiasi, it is rare for a child to pick up tuberculosis at school or during extracurricular activities. Usually, the disease is transferred by someone who maintains very close contact on a regular basis, such as a family member or caregiver.

When a child is brought to Children’s National Medical Center with active TB, the local health department is notified immediately and begins to search for the cause.

“We don’t just treat one child and that is the end of that,” DeBiasi says.

Children respond well to treatment, but DeBiasi says the elderly are at risk for serious complications and should be evaluated if they display any signs of TB.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says symptoms of TB include a persistent cough, weakness, fatigue and weight loss. It is the coughing that expels the bacteria from the infected person into the air. That is when tuberculosis can spread to others.

The CDC says good detective work by health departments across the country has slashed the number of tuberculosis cases in the U.S. from roughly 25,000 in 1992 to about 10,528 in 2011.

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