Auburn community college urges testing for hundreds after student’s tuberculosis diagnosis

Posted Jan. 21, 2014, at 5:29 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 22, 2014, at 6:17 a.m.
Dr. Stephen Sears
Dr. Stephen Sears

AUBURN, Maine — Central Maine Community College will kick off the spring semester with information sessions about tuberculosis after roughly 300 people affiliated with the school were warned last week of possible exposure to the bacterial disease.

State health officials informed the college on Jan. 10 that an individual associated with CMCC recently was hospitalized for tuberculosis, according to CMCC President Scott Knapp.

The individual is a student, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, CMCC emailed about 300 students, faculty and staff who had close contact with the infected person, urging them to get tested for the disease, Knapp said. The emails were followed by mailed letters on Jan. 17, he said.

CMCC will host a free TB testing clinic administered by the Maine CDC on campus on Monday, Jan. 27. Maine CDC staff also will be available at three TB informational sessions scheduled for Thursday, according to school officials.

“There are a lot of questions” on the 3,000-student campus, Knapp said Tuesday.

TB can spread through the air when someone carrying the disease in their lungs coughs, sneezes or talks, potentially infecting others who breathe in the bacteria. But only those who are coughing and sick, with an “active” case of TB, are contagious, said Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist. Even then, only people regularly exposed to the infected person are at risk, he said.

“This is not a contagious disease like the flu,” he said. “It isn’t like you get exposed once and you get it. It’s usually from multiple exposures over longer periods of time.”

Maine typically records 10 to 20 cases of active tuberculosis a year, Sears said. Last year, Maine confirmed 17 cases, including an outbreak in Aroostook County, he said.

TB typically hits populated areas, where the disease spreads more easily, Sears said.

While tuberculosis was rampant and feared as a major killer in the U.S. a century ago — often called “consumption” or the “white plague” — today’s medications are very effective against the disease, he said.

“It is a highly treatable and, most of the time, curable disease,” Sears said. “The most important thing is identifying it and treating somebody as soon as you can so you have the best shot of getting rid of the disease.”

Antibiotic medications also treat “latent” cases of TB, in which someone is infected without experiencing symptoms, he said. The disease sometimes crops up in nursing homes, where residents infected decades ago, when TB was more prevalent, suddenly get sick, Sears said. A suppressed immune system can allow a latent case of TB to activate, he said.

Sears declined to say how the CMCC student was exposed to the disease to protect her privacy. The CDC and the college did not release any identifying information about the individual.

“She’s doing fine,” Sears said.

While tuberculosis can prove tougher to spot during cold and flu season, symptoms will persist longer, Sears said. Signs include a chronic cough lasting two to three weeks, fevers and fatigue, with the illness progressively worsening, he said.

Maine CDC will return to CMCC, as it can take 10 weeks for a TB infection to test positive.

The test is administered through a small syringe that injects fluid into the skin of the forearm. The patient must then return to their medical provider within 48 to 72 hours to have the test read. If a swollen bump appears, the bump is measured to determine whether the person is infected.

CMCC students, faculty and staff who miss the Jan. 27 clinic also can get tested on Jan. 29, when CDC staff will return to campus to read the initial tests, Sears said.

With testing under way, it remains unclear how many CMCC students and staff could have been infected, Sears said.

“It’s not going to be hundreds of people at all, probably the people who were the most closely related, who had the most contact with her will have been infected latently,” he said.

Knapp urged those with questions to check the U.S. CDC website rather than stumble across misleading information elsewhere online.

Knapp recalled all his schoolmates getting tested for TB when he was a child, a common practice decades ago.

“The knowledge I had of it was out of date,” Knapp said. “It’s serious business, but it’s very treatable and it’s not something that should panic people.”

 

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