Students at Wellborn High School and Wellborn Elementary will line up for tuberculosis tests Wednesday morning, after a high school student was diagnosed with the disease.
“What we’re doing here this week is to try and find people who were exposed,” Pam Barrett, head of tuberculosis control for the Alabama Department of Public Health, told a crowd of parents in the Wellborn High gym Tuesday evening. “If we can find them, we can treat them before they get sick.”
Public health officials on Tuesday morning announced that a student at the school was diagnosed with TB last week. By Tuesday evening, Barrett and others from the Health Department were taking questions in person from parents.
A high school student was diagnosed with active tuberculosis last week, Barrett said. That student, she said, is at home undergoing treatment.
TB, which Barrett described as an infection that “eats away at the tissues of your lungs,” is relatively common, and dangerous, in developing countries. It’s less common in the U.S. — Alabama saw 120 cases last year — and public health officials say it’s easily treatable with drugs, particularly if caught early. Barrett said the affected student was U.S. born and hadn’t visited any other country recently. Travel to countries where TB is more common is one of the risk factors for developing TB, Barrett said.
School and health officials say there’s likely little risk to other students at the schools in Wellborn. To catch the illness, a person typically has to have prolonged contact with someone who’s not only infected but actually sick with the disease, officials say.
Out of caution, Barrett said, students will get a skin test to see if they’re infected.
“I think if we have a problem tomorrow, it will be with the smaller children,” said Dr. Burnestine Taylor, the assistant state health officer for communicable disease.
“There’s a needle prick with this test,” Taylor said, pointing to a spot on her forearm. “And we know small children don’t like that.”
The test involves an injection in the arm, which can turn into a raised or hardened patch of skin if the patient is actually infected with TB.
Donald Fox is familiar with the test. Fox, who has two kids at Wellborn High and one at the elementary school, once worked at the federal prison in Talladega. He wore a surgical mask to the Tuesday night meeting at the school.
“At the prison, when we had a TB outbreak, we’d put all of them on quarantine,” he said.
Taylor, who didn’t wear a mask to the event, said a prison is a different environment, with many people in close quarters for extended periods.
Traci Gardner said she wanted to know why the school waited a week to tell parents. The TB case was diagnosed on Feb. 13. Gardner said she didn’t know about it until her granddaughter brought a note home from school Tuesday.
“She’s scared to death of getting a shot,” Gardner said.
Barrett said state officials made the decision to wait, not the school. She said the risk of transmission was likely ended when the infected student was diagnosed and stayed out of school. The delay gave state officials time to organize a response, she said.
Barrett said Tuesday morning that the Wellborn tuberculosis case was one of three in the county, though there was no evidence any of those cases were related. She said the state has made progress in fighting the illness, with annual cases dropping from 600 in the mid-1990s to 120 last year.
State officials said the risk to students was very low. They said there was no risk to parents, either, in coming to the school.
“I’d be more nervous riding in an elevator with someone who coughs and doesn’t cover their mouth,” Taylor said.