City of Houston sends health investigator after individual at UH diagnosed with tuberculosis
The threat of tuberculosis infection at the University of Houston was discovered after an individual involved in the Fine Arts Building received a diagnosis. As of Tuesday night, the amount of people exposed has not yet been determined, Public Health Investigator Manager of Houston Patrick Ndibe said.
On Oct. 23, the Student Health Center sent out an email to those who were in direct contact with the individual for an extended period of time, and those who need testing received a separate email. Individuals at the greatest risk of infection still await testing due to the exact numbers not being known yet.
“I’m immunocompromised,” art freshman Jailyne Ochoa said. “I just got a bone marrow transplant, cancer treatment, so I’m at risk for stuff like that and I’m treating fungal pneumonia on top of that.”
Ndibe came to UH Monday to brief members of the community on TB and explain the causes, effects and general symptoms associated with the infection.
“When you say TB, the anxiety of the people in the room goes up,” Ndibe said. “But after they receive the education, they are okay.”
Ndibe leads a contact investigation whenever tuberculosis is diagnosed within the city of Houston. Whether it be at a high school, university or a work environment, he works to find who may be infected and raises awareness about the infection and potential consequences.
“We are here to educate people about TB and to answer questions,” Ndibe said. “No one needs to die of TB in the United States.”
After receiving confirmation of the TB diagnosis, health investigators dispatched to UH began testing at-risk individuals at the on-campus student medical service center and are currently still in the process, Ndibe said.
“I didn’t read it in depth, but I read it again today and I kind of freaked out,” graphic design freshman Caroline Schulz said. “I feel like they could’ve had a faster reaction time.”
If a student received the email, but has not checked their email or has not been aware, the student will still be notified. Public health officials are working closely with school authorities to inform all students at risk who failed to show up for testing. These students could be contacted by email again, phone or in person but they will be notified, Ndibe said.
People seem to think TB is close to being eradicated and become very concerned when they hear about it, Ndibe said. Tuberculosis is rare. Last year, there were only 186 cases of tuberculosis among the 2.3 million people who reside in Houston.
Specific conditions must be met for TB to spread to other people, making the overall risk of contraction very small. The most common way to become infected is though prolonged close contact with diseased individuals in a closed space, Ndibe said.
TB is transmitted by breathing in the air exhaled by diseased individuals, and thus outdoor contact has a low chance of producing an infection. Contact with skin and bodily fluids also will not transmit the disease.
“To be considered a contact, you would have spent six hours with that individual,” Ndibe said. “TB is not easily transmittable. There are a lot of myths.”
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection, not a virus, and can be treated. Most bacteria are treatable, and there are medicines that can cure tuberculosis, Ndibe said.
“I see (my doctor) on Friday, and I’m going to talk to him about the email,” Ochoa said.
Ndibe emphasized the importance of understanding the difference between a TB infection and the TB disease. When in contact with an individual with TB, it is possible to be infected, but people will not exhibit symptoms at this stage. A TB infection is not contagious, and the earlier TB is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
Symptoms of TB include coughing, loss of appetite, weight loss, chills and most notably, coughing blood, Ndibe said. These do not necessarily mean an individual has the disease, but those who contract the disease may exhibit these symptoms, he said. Any of the symptoms must seem excessive or seem to arise without cause.
“If you see someone cough, they probably don’t have TB,” Ndibe said. “But if they are coughing a lot, with blood, or if they are losing weight for no reason, then they may have it.”
Confidentiality is an important aspect of contact investigations. At-risk individuals received separate notification of the situation, and the individual diagnosed with TB has worked with the investigation to identify others who may be at risk.
Ndibe said it is critical that the infected UH individual remain anonymous for the sake of their privacy.
“Let’s say you and I are talking. You find out I have TB, then maybe you won’t want to talk with me anymore,” Ndibe said. “There is a lot of stigma about it.”