BY REED SHELTON
Following the diagnosis of a third student with active tuberculosis (TB) early this month, Salisbury University officials are pleased with the lack of panic while simultaneously imploring those contacted due to risk factors to be screened for the disease.
Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Mentha Hynes-Wilson commended the student body’s response to the outbreak—the first identified in decades, she said—but noted the importance of further action by those the university has reached out to.
“It’s been a very calm response, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there hasn’t been a lot of panic or hysteria, which is good,” Hynes-Wilson said. “People recognize that it is serious, but at the same time there are opportunities for us to be proactive.”
“It’s one of those situations where (TB screening) is the right thing to do. As young adults and citizens that care about your neighbors and your classmates, I’m appealing to everyone’s sense in that regard,” she said.
This latest student is the third since October to contract active TB, a disease which normally attacks the lungs, but can also reach any part of the body such as the kidneys, spine and brain and can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms can include coughing (with the possible presence of blood), fever, chest pain and weakness.
While specific details on the infected students are being withheld to protect their confidentiality, Hynes-Wilson said based upon reports from the health department, all three students had been compliant with their treatment and are doing well.
Globally, 9 million people—mostly young adults—fell ill with TB and 1.5 million died from the disease, although most TB cases can be cured when medicines are provided and taken properly, according to the World Health Organization.
Working hand-in-hand, SU and the Wicomico Health Department have reached out via e-mail, phone calls and face-to-face classroom meetings by Student Health Services to staff, students and faculty that may have been in contact with the infected students, as well as to roommates and family members that may be at risk.
Dr. James Cockey, M.D., deputy health officer at the Wicomico Health Department, said that while the student response to their investigation has been much-improved—roughly 90 percent, according to Hynes-Wilson—it is important that full cooperation be reached in order to fully halt the outbreak.
“Early on, after the first case in the fall, the response was not wonderful and we did a lot of work with the SU administration to try to have them use some of the power they have to improve cooperation, and that was more effective,” Cockey said. “Now that there’s a second and third case, we’re finding a lot more cooperation… If people work with us and let us do the screening and testing, we will identify everyone who’s infected and treat them ahead of time before they get sick.
“This is all speculation, but it is entirely possible that if we’d had 100 percent cooperation from the get-go in our fall investigation it is possible… that the two subsequent cases may have been prevented,” he said.
Cockey also distinguished between being infected with TB and actually getting sick.
Exposure to the tuberculosis germ usually leads to what is known as latent tuberculosis, which is where the germ can linger in the individual’s body but do no harm and is non-infections, he said.
However, due to factors such as age and the condition of one’s immune system, people infected with the bacteria can develop active tuberculosis, which is both contagious and potentially deadly if untreated.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, TB is spread only by the inhalation of germs expelled by an infected person coughing, sneezing, speaking or singing, and cannot be caught through casual contact such as hand-shaking, sharing food or drinks or even kissing.
Victoria Lentz is the director of SU’s Student Health Services, and she recommended general health measures as the course of action that students who were not contacted should be taking.
“Good hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough, keeping your immune system healthy by going to bed at a decent hour, having a good diet, limiting your alcohol, no smoking—all those things which can impact your health,” Lentz said. “You want to keep your immune system in good shape so that when you do come into contact with viruses and bacteria it can do its job.”
The Wicomico Health Department is currently conducting genetic analysis on samples of the bacterium taken from the three infected students to determine whether they were infected from a common source—something the health department suspects—but the results of those tests take time and will not be conclusive for several months.
Screening for TB by health care professionals is simple, quick and relatively painless. It involves taking a particle of the actual TB germ, inserting it just beneath the skin of the forearm and examining the area 24-72 hours later.
Free, immediate TB screening is available for students that have been contacted about potential risk at Student Health Services in Holloway Hall, room 180.