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International TB scare a problem for SETX

A young man diagnosed with tuberculosis aboard an international flight probably did not infect as many people as initially presumed, according to Dr. Michael Thomas.

An Infectious Disease Specialist in Orange, Dr. Thomas said passengers sitting right next to Andrew Speaker had the highest chance of being exposed. While no Southeast Texans were on the Speaker’s flight, Thomas cautioned area residents that they are susceptible to the disease as well.

Dr. Thomas said tuberculosis, a bacterial infection usually transmitted through droplets in the air, has been around “since the start of the planet and has always been an issue.”

“In Port Arthur there is quite a bit of TB. It is imported by immigrants from Central and South America, Asia and Africa where there is a higher rate of TB,” the German doctor said. “They come here and get a flare up or are already fully exposed.”

Thomas estimated that Jefferson County sees “probably ten new cases a year” of tuberculosis, a number that could become a problem.

“I think we may be a little bit above average,” he said. “We treat a lot of HIV patients too. We have a unique population with a lot of immigration.”

Considering the exposed passengers aboard Speaker’s international flight, Thomas said more people are at risk when eating in a restaurant or waiting in line at an airport as tuberculosis is transmitted through coughs, sneezes, spit and the bodily fluid expelled while talking. A person needs only to inhale a small number of these to be infected.

“Potentially, anybody can be at risk,” the doctor said. “We don’t live in a bubble, we are all exposed to many different people every day and we don’t know who does have the disease.”

Thomas pointed out that bank tellers, police officers, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, teachers, students and other people who come face to face with many people throughout out the workday are at a higher risk to be exposed to tuberculosis than others.

Symptoms of tuberculosis include persistent coughing, respiratory secretions, fever, night sweats and significant weight loss over several weeks.

“This is more than just a cold,” Thomas said.

The doctor said a simple skin test can determine if someone is infected with TB and if tested positive, patients are then given chest X-rays and cultures of the lungs are done. The next step is to test for sensitivity to antibiotics. The first line of drugs consists of four medicines and to be resistant to all four is rare, Thomas said. Speaker, who is infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis, must now be treated with the second line of drugs, which include IVs and pills, some with dangerous side effects.

“I pity this guy because he’s being exposed to the side effects that can mess him up quite a bit,” Thomas said.

Left untreated, each person with active TB disease will infect on average between 10 and 15 people every year. Eleven people who were on flights with Speaker have tested negative for the disease, health officials in South Carolina said Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.