Chief medical officer discusses airline passenger possibly infected with TB


by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and Photojournalist Dennis Thomas

Bio | Email | Follow: @JimB_KVUE

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 7:27 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 2 at 7:40 PM

AUSTIN -- Passengers on a plane from Austin to Phoenix were told to get a tuberculosis test.  A man on board that Saturday flight may have had the highly contagious, and possibly deadly, bacterial infection.

The passenger who may have been infected wasn't red-flagged at check-in. The flight crew made the discovery only after the plane took off from ABIA.

US Airways express flight 2846 took off as usual Saturday afternoon from ABIA. But it quickly turned unusual when, during the flight, the TSA notified the airline that a passenger on board had just been put on the no-fly list because of a medical condition that could put the crew and 74 passengers, including Dean Davidson, at risk.

"As we were taxing a stewardess came down the aisle," said Davidson. "She had a mask and she instructed the gentleman to put a mask on."

Later it was learned the condition was tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that starts in the lungs but can, according to doctors, become deadly if it makes its way into the bloodstream and into the brain.

"There are certain diseases that are reportable by law," said Dr. Al Gros, the chief medical officer at St. David's South Austin Medical Center.  Dr. Gros says patients with certain sexually transmitted or infectious illnesses, including tuberculosis, must report them to their local health department. The department will then forward the info to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The problem with tuberculosis is it is so highly contagious," said Dr. Gros.

Tuberculosis is spread when someone with the illness exhales, sneezes or coughs the micro particles that are so fine they hang in the air for a long time.

"Because of the close quarters in an airplane, for example, that would put seat mates at some risk of getting the disease," said Dr. Gros.

He stressed that the duration of the exposure is key.

"Obviously if you are a household contact with someone with active tuberculosis, you are a lot more at risk than someone on a two-hour airplane flight," he said.

Still passengers want to know why they weren't informed ahead of time. US Airways says it can't confirm it was tuberculosis, and it did not receive the warning in time.

"The warning that came from the CDC did not occur until after the flight had departed. So the passenger did not have a red flag in their reservation system or any warning there," the airline said.

Dr. Gros says the reality is there are probably hundreds of people who fly around the world who have active tuberculosis and don't even know it. He says a healthy immune system will keep those around them from becoming infected.

He also says in a way Saturday's incident is a lot to do about a little. At the same time he says it's a good wake up call to make people aware of the problem.

Tuberculosis is treatable with antibiotics, but Dr. Gros says, like other bacterial infections, more drug resistant strains of tuberculosis are starting to form.

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