More than 700 babies exposed to tuberculosis in Texas hospital

Health officials are now following up with the parents of 706 babies and 43 employees. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

TORONTO – It’s not exactly what new parents want to hear: Texas authorities are warning that more than 700 newborns and 40 frontline health care workers were exposed to an employee who had an active case of tuberculosis.

The El Paso Department of Public Health said Monday that a hospital employee tested positive for the disease – he or she worked in a nursery at the Providence Memorial Hospital and interacted with patients for months.

Health officials are now following up with the parents of 706 babies and 43 employees – they’re insisting that these people return to hospital for screening free of charge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also helped out by sending out letters and making phone calls.

The exposure likely took place for over a year, from September 2013 to last month when the worker was placed on leave.

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Tuberculosis spreads when a person with an active TB case coughs or sneezes, releasing droplets with the germs into the air. However, TB isn’t highly contagious, the El Paso officials said in a press release. It usually requires an extended period of close contact to be spread.

But once the bacteria is in the body, it can lay dormant for months or years before becoming an active case of TB.

“That is why it is so important to identify people who may have been exposed, screen them and provide treatment that can prevent them from ever developing active TB disease,” the statement says.

Armando Saldivar, spokesman for the El Paso Department of Public Health, told The Associated Press that local health officials do not know why the worker was not tested by the hospital until Aug. 21, if the person had symptoms as early as December. Also, officials are still investigating how and when the worker became infected, Saldivar said.

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No other workers have tested positive for active tuberculosis. The hospital would not comment on how many results have come back or whether there were cases of latent tuberculosis.

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Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the agency previously has dealt with investigations where it was possible hundreds of people were exposed to TB, but those were in school settings, involving older children.

“This involves babies, who are more likely to develop serious disease,” she said.

Read more here.

With files from The Associated Press