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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Student diagnosed with active tuberculosis infection

Published: December 7, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

A student diagnosed with an active case of Tuberculosis (TB) on Tuesday forced Brandeis University officials to order tests for 250 students, faculty and staff, despite little risk they believe, of the disease spreading on campus.

Dr. Debra Poaster, Medical Director of the Brandeis Health Center, said the university decided to test the large number of community members as a precaution.

“We’ve been very conservative about who we’ve been testing,” Poaster said by phone Thursday evening.

After Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel notified the community in an email Thursday afternoon, Provost Steve Goldstein reinforced the message at a faculty meeting: community members should increase their awareness and knowledge of the infection but not be overly concerned about the risk of getting it.

“Thankfully the person has been isolated and is responding well to therapy,” Goldstein said to an auditorium of nearly 50 faculty and staff. “At this stage, there is no reason to believe that anyone else has TB or is at significant risk.”

As of Thursday evening, the university was still waiting on test results from about five people in immediate contact with the sick student, who has been reported as isolated and receiving treatment. Officials declined to comment as of press time on whether the student was currently staying on or off campus.

Officials from the Mass. Department of Public Health participated in on-campus meetings and phone calls with university administrators this week, following standard protocol for response to a TB diagnosis. Poaster also recalled a case of TB reported on campus about three years ago.

A bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes the infection. While the bacteria typically attacks the lungs, TB bacteria can attack other parts of the body, including the kidney, spine and brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). TB can be fatal if not treated properly. Many people can be infected with TB, however, not show symptoms of the disease while the infection is latent or inactive, officials said.

“Some people estimate that 40 percent of the world harbors latent TB,” Poaster said.

The Mass. Department of Public Health received reports of 196 cases of active TB in 2011, and TB cases have declined by 27 percent over the past three years.
Only people sick with the active disease, spreading it through the air, can infect others. TB cannot be spread through hand shakes, touching bed sheets or toilet seats, sharing food or kissing, according to the CDC. Those who test positive can be treated to prevent the inactive TB from turning into the active infection. Symptoms of pulmonary TB include more than two weeks of coughing with thick, cloudy or bloody mucus; fever; fatigue, sudden weight loss or shortness of breath.

“While it appears the likelihood of further infection is low, we encourage everyone to be alert to the symptoms of pulmonary TB,” Flagel wrote.

Those with cancer, HIV, diabetes, silicosis, substance abuse, very low body weight, gastric bypass, corticosteroids, and treatments for organ transplants, rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease are at greater risk for infection, officials said.

Poaster described the process of testing students, explaining why it takes a few days to wait for results.

“You’re basically testing for cellular immunity and so it takes that long [2-3 days] for a person to develop a reaction to the test.”

Notified by email to visit the health center and undergo the test, students such as Max Pepper ’13, expressed little worry while awaiting the test results. Officials contacted students, faculty and staff by determining who may have been exposed to the infection in both academic and social settings.

“The health and well being of our community is our primary concern. And at this point there is no reason to believe that this issue will impact the day-to-day operations of the university,” Flagel wrote.

Those concerned about their exposure to TB were urged to contact the university Health Center between 1 and 6 p.m. on weekdays or by email.