Doctor With TB May Have Exposed Hundreds of Infants

In a medical mystery, a resident with Northwestern University's medical school who tested negative to a routine test for tuberculosis some time ago may have inadvertently passed the disease on to hundreds of infants and colleagues during shifts at three Chicago-area hospitals.

About 300 staff and 150 patients may have been exposed at Children's Memorial Hospital, said Dr. Stan Shulman, the hospital's chief of pediatric infectious disease. 

The 26-year-old resident was diagnosed with active TB, and was contagious while working shifts at Northwestern Memorial, Children's Memorial and Evanston hospitals from Feb. 12 to March 11.  The doctor is no longer working in the hospitals.

"The case of TB has been identified, isolated and treated," said Dr. Terry Mason, the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Health.  "Hospital staffs are taking action to notify everyone who needs to be notified, and public agencies at all levels are fully briefed on this situation."

Tuberculosis is spread through the air, and public health officials say the doctor had many of the symptoms, including coughing and sneezing, however CDC guidelines say that it generally takes 120 hours of face-to-face exposure before someone is at high risk of being affected.

Hospital officials say that following those guidelines, very few of those being tested qualify.  Still, it may be weeks before it's known whether the babies or health care workers were actually infected.

In a statement, Northwestern Memorial Hospital said it is in the process of contacting 17 patients who may have been infected.  Another 100 patients who may have received care from the health worker are being evaluated to determine their risk. 

Of greatest concern are the limited number of patients and staff who were in Prentice Women’s Hospital between Nov. 3 and Nov. 21,  2008.  Patients who had a baby in the normal newborn nursery during that period will be contact within the next few days, the hospital said.

The incident does not include the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) patients.

"We are encouraged that closest contacts surrounding this particular patient are so far skin test negative, which indicates to us that this patient has not actually transmitted the TB bacteria easily to any of the closest contacts that surround this individual patient," said Chicago Chief Medical Officer Dr. Susan Gerber.

Just last month, the Chicago Department of Public Health released a report that said instances of the disease fell to an all-time low in 2008, with only 214 cases.  Cases are down almost 75 percent from levels seen in 1993.  In a report, the steepest decline in TB cases came among African-Americans, down from 124 cases in 2007 to just 86 last year.

Patients who have questions can call the Chicago Department of Health at 312-746-4835.

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