Local woman suspected of spreading TB

April 16, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Another person on board a plane with a Sunnyvale woman being treated for tuberculosis, has tested positive. Our media partner, the San Jose Mercury News, first reported on the connection. We spoke with local health officials who are investigating this new case.

With packed planes taking off daily, few passengers aboard a flight from New Delhi would have suspected a Sunnyvale woman was on board with a drug resistant case of tuberculosis.

"She was actually coughing and was infectious," says Santa Clara County Health Officer Marty Fenstersheib.

Doctors ordered those sitting near her be tested for tuberculosis. The CDC announced that one passenger's tests came back positive.

"We don't know where they got it, we can only assume, if they rule everything else out in the person's family, that it came from that person on the plane," says Fenstersheib.

Health officials won't say where this person is from or even their name, but they do say the chances of this becoming a full-blown case of tuberculosis are slim.

"I was like 'Oh my God, I'm positive," says Luther McRae, diagnosed with tuberculosis last year.

McRae thinks he caught the disease in San Francisco, the city with the highest per capita rate of tuberculosis in the state.

"I stayed in the hospital for two months and I was on meds, and everything. Of course, when I got out I was on meds for nine months. I took 13 pills a day for nine months," says McRae.

Still, Santa Clara County leads the Bay Area in tuberculosis cases. Last year there were 241 cases, 13 more than the year before.

"Ninety percent of most of our cases in the Bay Area really are coming from individuals that are coming in from areas with lots of tuberculosis," says Fenstersheib.

ABC7 aviation consultant, Ron Wilson, says it's up to airline staff to pay closer attention to people who are sick, especially when flying internationally.

"If the passenger is visibly ill, with all of those symptoms of a bad, bad flu, then they're obligated to make a report," says Wilson.

The first level of screening takes place before the plane even takes off. It happens while you're boarding. That's when flight attendants do a visual check of everyone on the plane.

If a passenger is sick during the flight, medics should be notified. Once the plane lands, it could be quarantined. Standards, Wilson says, that are universally known, but rarely followed.

You can read more about this story in Thursday's edition of the San Jose Mercury News or online here. Then in Sunday's edition of the paper, a closer look at why tuberculosis is disproportionately affecting Silicon Valley.


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