Tuberculosis in Kentuckiana: History, symptoms and treatment

Tuberculosis in Kentuckiana: History, symptoms and treatment
Published: Jun. 6, 2015 at 2:32 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2015 at 2:43 AM EDT
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Rock Creek Community Academy (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Rock Creek Community Academy (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Dr. Paul Schulz (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Dr. Paul Schulz (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A positive test for Tuberculosis in Clark County, Indiana has an entire school under the microscope. One student has tested positive for the disease, but 48 others have tested positive for the TB skin test, which means those students need further testing.

So how do you get the bacterial disease and why is a school not such a surprising place to find it?

[RELATED: Positive TB test at school leads to further evaluation]

It doesn't help when you have people in close quarters like a classroom setting. TB is airborne, so being in close proximity of someone who has it, who also happens to be coughing on you is certainly one way to get it.

Once you get it into your own lungs, you become infected. The disease can be deadly.

Tuberculosis has quite a history in Louisville.

[MORE: Waverly Hills: Louisville's haunted gem]

The Waverly Hills Sanatorium opened in the early 1900s to deal with about 50 tuberculosis patients as Louisville and Jefferson County had an outbreak of the disease. Known back then as the White Plague, the symptoms included cough, phlegm or blood in the cough, fever, night sweats, muscle weakness, chest pain and breathing problems.

Many patients died over the years before an antibiotic came out in the 1960s.

"Ultimately, what they ended up doing was taking those folks and putting them all in the same place so they wouldn't put other people in the community at risk," said Dr. Paul Schulz, a Norton Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist.

He said of the early days, "Then you tried the treatment options that were available and hope that people survived and some people did survive. Occasionally you'll see somebody that survived TB and even spent time at Waverly."

Schulz has met a few of those surviving Waverly patients, who were children back then.

As in the case of the students at Rock Creek Community Academy in Clark County Indiana, he says 48 positive skin tests could be latent tuberculosis. With latent TB you're not ill, you're not contagious and you may have a negative chest X-Ray, but you could develop TB at some point and that's why patients are treated for it.

"In general, the recommendation is to treat anybody with latent Tuberculosis infection so they don't develop an active infection later on in life," Schulz said.

When you have active TB, you're ill and if it's pulmonary, you are likely contagious.

If you thought there was a vaccination for TB, there is one known as BCG vaccine, but typically it's not used in the U.S.

"The bottom line is that the BCG vaccine isn't that effective," said Schulz.

Health departments are now able to screen and ID latent Tuberculosis so it doesn't become active. There are rare resistant strains of TB, but Schulz doesn't believe that's a concern. He said health departments on are top it, which is what's happening in this case as the remaining Rock Creek students will be tested Monday from 1 to 6:30 p.m.

Norton will partner with health departments and Kosair Children's Hospital to make sure the disease does not become a bigger issue.

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