Hospital tracking down hundreds possibly exposed to tuberculosis

A Northern California hospital is tracking down more than 1,000 people, including 350 infants, who may have been exposed to tuberculosis by an infected nurse this fall.

CBS San Francisco reports the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center is now reaching out by mail or phone to notify the patients who may have been affected, and is offering testing and treatment starting today.

Hospital officials said exposure to the disease may have occurred in the hospital's Mother & Infant Care Center between mid-August and mid-November. The hospital learned about the nurse's condition in mid-November, but did not go public with the news for almost a month.

"It took them a month to put together a game plan of identifying the kids and the parents who were affected, as well as the hospital workers, and also how to notify them and figuring out what to do," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus told "CBS This Morning." "To me, a month is too long," he added.

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs, but can affect other parts of the body including the spine, brain or blood system. It spreads by inhaling the bacteria when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks nearby.

"It's serious," Agus said. "At the turn of the last century, tuberculosis was the number one killer in the United States. It has certainly gone down dramatically, to about 9,000 cases a year in the United States, but in newborns it can be fatal. And so newborns need to be treated right away."

The babies identified by the hospital will be put on a six-month course treatment with the antibiotic isoniazid, Agus said. Adults won't start on medications unless they test positive or develop symptoms. Drugs for tuberculosis can have serious side effects that damage the liver or nerves, but Agus said the benefits of treating the disease outweigh the potential risks.

Hospital officials said they have identified 1,056 people at greatest risk; that number includes 350 infants, 368 mothers and 338 hospital staff.

All hospital employees are screened for tuberculosis once a year, and the nurse's annual test in September came back negative, officials said. The diagnosis came in mid-November after the nurse underwent screening for an unrelated medical condition.

Some people infected with TB don't experience any symptoms. In certain cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says symptoms can emerge much later if a person's immune system weakens. Symptoms, when they occur, may include:

  • a bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer
  • pain in the chest
  • coughing up blood or sputum
  • weakness or fatigue
  • weight loss
  • no appetite
  • chills
  • fever
  • sweating at night

Anyone concerned about possible exposure can contact the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center at (408) 885-3444 to make an appointment, hospital officials said.