Postal Workers Are Tested For TB

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Thirty-two postal workers in Chantilly tested positive for exposure to tuberculosis in February after a colleague fell ill with the disease, according to Fairfax County and U.S. Postal Service officials. None of the 32 has become sick, the officials said.

Yesterday, 67 postal workers who initially tested negative for exposure were given a second round of skin tests, said Susan Fay, a communicable disease expert with the Fairfax Health Department. The follow-up tests are routine, Fay said. Results are expected within days.

The source of the infection for the postal worker who became ill is unclear, Fay said, noting that it can take years for a person exposed to tuberculosis bacteria to become sick. "The assessment in this situation was there was no risk to the public," Fay said, adding that customers need not be tested. Officials said it was not an unusual or drug-resistant strain.

Deborah Yackley, a Postal Service spokeswoman, said the employee who had the disease "has undergone treatment and has been declared well and is back to work."

Experts said it generally takes prolonged contact with someone who is sick to become infected, and even then the source of infection can be hard to trace. "It's not something like the flu that's spread very easily," said Loudoun County Health Director David Goodfriend. "It's not something that one cough was going to transmit, or even minutes [spent together], but hours."

Tuberculosis, a major global health threat, is on the wane in the United States. But there are still hundreds of cases each year in the Washington region, which has many residents who travel abroad frequently or who have spent years in countries where the disease is widespread.

In Northern Virginia, there were 194 reported cases of TB in 2007, nearly two-thirds of the state's total. Maryland had 270 reported cases last year, a 7 percent increase over 2006. The District last year had 10.2 cases per 100,000 residents. The TB rate for Montgomery County was 8.8 cases per 100,000 residents; Northern Virginia's was 9.3.

"Over the last 10 years or so, it's been sort of a slow increase" in Northern Virginia, said Jane Moore, Virginia's assistant director of tuberculosis control, although the numbers tend to "bounce around," she said. They were down slightly last year.

The majority of people who test positive for exposure to the bacteria do not contract the disease, Moore said.

Demographic change has been a key driver of tuberculosis in the Washington region. In Fairfax, 100 of 108 cases reported last year occurred in the foreign-born population, according to the county's health department. About 70 percent of the cases in Maryland occurred in people born outside the United States, said Vicki Randle, an epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health.

"We're driving toward TB elimination, but we're just not getting there," Randle said. She cited immigration, health disparities among disadvantaged people and funding cuts as reasons for the persistence of the disease.

The Chantilly case was reported yesterday in the Washington Times.

Officials spoke with 129 postal employees in Chantilly, Fairfax Health Department spokesman Michael Andrews said. Twenty-two had tested positive for TB before their colleague got sick. They were not tested again and have not shown signs of illness, officials said. Of those given skin tests, 67 tested negative and 32 positive for exposure to TB, Andrews said.

Chest X-rays cleared 31 of the 32 workers who tested positive. The other worker had a negative sputum test.

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