About 120 University of Hawaii at Hilo students and staff exposed to tuberculosis

For the second time in less than a month there’s been a tuberculosis exposure — this time at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

This comes after a recent notification at Waipahu High School. 145 students and staff there were told they may have been exposed. Most have been tested, so far seven tested positive for TB infection but they’re not sick or contagious.

On hawaii Island, 120 people at UH Hilo will need to get screened after possible exposure.

So what should students, staff, and the rest of the public need to do to protect themselves from getting TB?

Active TB disease is different from having a TB infection. The two people who had active TB disease in Waipahu and Hilo were the only ones contagious.

The hundreds of others who were probably exposed — may have a TB infection, but that’s not contagious and they don’t pose a risk.

“That is the inactive form of the infection, most people who have TB infection will never get sick. A small number — months to years later — can develop the active TB disease,” said Dr. Elizabth MacNeill of the Tuberculosis Control Branch.

But Dr. MacNeill said everyone exposed needs to get tested. Usually less than 2 percent who are exposed have the germ enter their body.

“We like to find them because we can put them on preventive medicine that can greatly reduce their chances of having TB disease later on in life.”

TB is commonly seen in the lungs and can only be spread from person-to-person through the air.

It’s treatable and curable. There is a vaccine for it but the U.S. does not use it because there aren’t that many cases.

“The campus is safe, there is no danger to people visiting, attending classes, none of the activities are being rescheduled everything is going on as normal,” said Dr. MacNeill.

Dr. MacNeill said having TB exposure at two school campuses at the same time is very unusual.

But health officials tend to investigate a TB case at the college level at least once a year.

“It’s usually earlier in the year, it’s usually when the college students are registering they get tested for TB and they get their x-rays so we usually see it earlier in the year.”

It’s important to remember — dozens exposed to tb at Waipahu High School and then tested negative, need to get screened by medical officials again in May. Sometimes TB infections can show up a couple of weeks later.

A clinic for TB testing will be held on UH Hilo campus this month. DOH will only test people that had regular close contact to the person that was diagnosed with active TB.

Health director Dr. Virginia Pressler said in a press release that officials don’t expect to find more individuals with infectious TB. However, Pressler said they want to identify people who have been exposed to verify they are not contagious and if they could benefit from preventative medication.

The State of Hawaii has one of the highest annual tuberculosis case rates in the country. In 2015, Hawaii reported 127 total cases of TB, a rate of 8.9 new cases per 100,000 people and the second highest in the nation that year. Although TB rates have declined over the past decade, Hawaii’s 2015 rate was almost three times higher than the 2015 national TB case rate of 3.0 per 100,000 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

TB is a disease that is commonly seen in the lungs and can only be spread from person-to-person through the air. When a person with active TB disease in the lung or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings, tiny drops containing M. tuberculosis may be spread into the air. If another person inhales these drops there is a chance that they will become infected with TB. Two forms of TB exist, both of which are treatable and curable:

  1. Latent TB infection – when a person has TB bacteria in their body but the body’s immune system is protecting them and they are not sick. Someone with latent TB infection cannot spread the infection to other people.
  2. Active TB disease – when a person becomes sick with TB because their immune system can no longer protect them. It usually takes many months or years from having infection to developing the disease and most people (90 percent) will never become ill. Someone with active TB disease may be able to spread the disease to other people.

For more information on tuberculosis, please call the State of Hawaii Tuberculosis Control Program at 832-5731 or visit the Department of Health website at http://health.hawaii.gov/tb.

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