Tuberculosis lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm report of a recent outbreak at an elementary school in South Carolina that infected about 53 children. State health officials are now under fire for the extraordinarily slow response to the outbreak, as 465 children were not tested until nearly three months after the discovery.
The school, Ninety Six Primary School, is located in rural South Carolina, in a town with a population of about 2,000. More than 1,000 students and staff were exposed to the contagious airborne disease, however, hundreds were not tested until months after the bacteria was detected.
Tuberculosis (TB), though curable, can be very serious and even fatal, particularly in young children and those with compromised immune systems. The bacteria that causes TB is spread through tiny droplets released into the air through coughs and sneezes, potentially entering and infecting the lungs of others.
In 1985, a resurgence of TB occurred in developed countries partly due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which weakens the immune system to such a degree that it cannot fight off the bacteria. The prevalence of the disease decreased again in 1993, though it remains a concern to this day.
Unfortunately, many strains of TB are resistant to drug treatments, requiring months of expensive medication schedules to cure. Ten of the children and two adults infected in South Carolina were diagnosed with one of these dangerous types of strains, now requiring intensive treatment many families have no way of affording. In total, more than 100 adults and children tested positive for TB.
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The extensive delay in testing and treatment is of much concern to families in the area, and several employees of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Controls (DHEC) have already been fired or suspended. Among those fired include three nurses and the head of the Department’s TB unit.
The director of the DHEC admits that her department botched the TB investigation, which happened in early March, though parents of children at Ninety Six Primary School were not notified of the outbreak until late May. Local DHEC nurses discovered the outbreak after a visibly ill custodian was admitted to the hospital and tested positive for the disease. That hospital then notified local health department nurses, who launched an investigation into the situation.
Local DHEC nurses tested some of the school’s staff and requested, several times, for permission to begin informing parents and testing the rest of the students and staff for TB. State health department administrators, however, failed to grant permission for several months. When permission was finally granted, the state ultimately contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which sent two epidemiologists who spent several weeks in the rural town assisting with investigations.
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The DHEC director placed much of the blame on three local nurses, who she claims did not follow standard procedures or do enough to alert their supervisors of the crisis. She said the nurses ignored public health protocols, investigations were poorly performed, and that the nurses could have obtained the authority to properly conduct investigations by going straight to the director herself.
Anyone infected with TB must be treated and supervised carefully, but children in particular are more prone to serious side effects and disease progression, as symptoms can be more subtle in children. The disease is also known to spread to other parts of the body beyond the lungs in small children.
A South Carolina Senate committee is set to hold a hearing in August 2013 to investigate the outbreak and handling by DHEC. One State Senator called the DHEC’s performance during the situation a “failure of state government.”