Once known as the consumption, tuberculosis (TB) was a terrifying everyday reality for many Americans who watched loved ones cough blood into rags and wither away. But today, the relatively rare outbreak of TB is treatable and curable, a process currently underway at Patrick Henry Elementary School, where someone in the school was discovered to be diagnosed with TB.
On April 30, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) sent out an alert that TB was discovered and contained. Dr. Kim Luk from Alexandria’s Department of Health said the system of healthcare providers in the U.S. have a list of infectious diseases that, if found, they are required to report. Among them is tuberculosis.
“An individual at Patrick Henry was found out to have been diagnosed with active tuberculosis,” said Raashi Rastogi, Alexandria Health Department communications officer. “As soon as we found out, the person was quarantined and taken out of the school and started on proper treatment. Alexandria City Public Schools took precautions to make sure the students were safe and there is no longer any ongoing risk of exposure. The school was disinfected immediately and the air filters were replaced with new filters.”
Now, Rastogi says the Health Department is moving into the second stage of the process.
“We’re identifying all of the students and staff who may have come into contact with the individual and may be at risk of exposure,” said Rastogi. “Over the next week or two, once isolated, we’ll be setting up a process for testing for TB for free at Patrick Henry. In the next two weeks we will be sending letters and giving calls to all students and staff determined to be at risk. They can come in for a blood test to determine whether or not they have TB and start treatments if they do.”
While tuberculosis isn’t rare, Rastogi said the city has been lucky in avoiding the diagnosis as long as it has.
“We haven’t had an incident like this in the school system in over a decade,” said Rastogi. “At the same time, looking at some of our neighbors, Fairfax County Public Schools has had a few incidents, some at a much larger scale. It’s not something completely out of the ordinary or completely unexpected to encounter in a school.”
Fairfax County had three separate incidents of tuberculosis in schools last year.
“In general, we might not be used to hearing about TB, but it is an endemic infection,” said Luk. “People get exposed, but not everyone gets infected or gets the disease. For the average person’s immune system, for this disease, the system is quite capable of containing and eliminating it. Only 30 percent of those exposed to TB get infected. Only 10 percent of those move from an infectious state to active disease. It’s a slow growing bacteria that’s been around for a long time that not everyone gets sick from.”
Luk said some of the symptoms of TB can be coughing and being sick for an extended period of time, especially if it lasts longer than three weeks. The disease can also cause fevers, chills, night sweats and progressive weight loss.