Health officials investigate TB exposure at McAllen school

McALLEN — City and county officials are working to notify individuals exposed to tuberculosis after a case was reported at Nikki Rowe High School.

McALLEN — City and county officials are working to notify individuals exposed to tuberculosis after a case was reported at Nikki Rowe High School.

About 250 students and staff were notified of having come in contact with a person who contracted the bacterial infection, which usually affects the lungs.

“We were recently informed of a suspect case of potential tuberculosis (TB),” stated a letter sent to parents on Oct. 27 and signed by Principal Monica Kaufmann. “The school district and the Hidalgo County Health Department have been collaboratively working together.”

This letter was sent in both English and Spanish to all parents to notify them of the incident. The health department sent a separate notification to the 250 individuals who came in close contact with the individual referred to as “index patient.”

The identity of the patient in question cannot be revealed due to confidentiality laws, according to Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County Health Department chief administrative officer. But he also made it clear that the bacterial infection is difficult to transmit in a classroom environment unless the person has come into significantly close contact with the carrier.

Those most at risk are a parent, sibling, significant other or somebody who spends long periods of time in their close proximity.

“TB is very difficult to pass on from one person to another,” he said. “So even in a school setting it’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult to contract. … However, by state regulations and CDC regulations, and recommendations that are part of our investigation and response, is to investigate possible exposure to tuberculosis when a case might appear.”

The investigation process can be lengthy, Olivarez said, but the next step is to successfully make contact with the people identified and test them for TB.

The test is administered via an injection to the arm that creates a small blister-like reaction. If that blister changes color over time, it indicates possible exposure to the bacteria, but because certain Latin American countries administer a TB vaccine, the reaction doesn’t always mean the person tests positive for active tuberculosis, he explained.

Those who test positive will then undergo interviews, along with their family members, to identify those who are at actual risk of having contracted the illness. Other tests, such as an x-rays of the lungs, are also administered.

The individual results will indicate whether other tests or treatment are necessary.

“Being exposed doesn’t mean you have it,” Olivarez said. “Tuberculosis is very slow. It’s not a fast moving illness… so it takes a little bit of time. I can’t give a timeline because it will depend on the results of each individual.”

People who contract tuberculosis can have no symptoms for months or even years, Olivarez explained, and usually treatment to fight the infection involves six to nine months of antibiotics or physician treatment. Cutting a treatment short can not only result in worsening of the symptoms, but also in the development of a bacterial strain resistant to drugs, making the disease harder to combat.

For now, the county is in the initial phases of establishing contact with those potentially exposed. Olivarez said the district has taken precautions to make sure the classrooms are safe for students to continue attending class at no risk.

Common cleaning methods, such as those usually employed at this time of year to prevent the spread of flu, are also effective against tuberculosis, he said.

“They did good job in dealing with this,” Olivarez added. “We average one or two investigations a year with school districts here in the county… if a person has not gotten one of those letters, it doesn’t involve them.”