TB hits Atlanta homeless; Ga. has brush with MERS

A major outbreak of tuberculosis has struck Atlanta homeless shelters, public health officials said Tuesday.


Health officials have confirmed 15 TB cases in Atlanta, and another 600 people from homeless shelters need to be tested, said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection for the state Department of Public Health.

The agency also said Tuesday that 90 Georgians were passengers on airline flights taken by a man infected with MERS who is now being treated in Florida.  His is the second confirmed case of the disease on U.S. soil, the CDC said Monday.

The Georgia passengers are being contacted by the CDC about “their low risk of exposure,’’ said Cherie Drenzek, the state epidemiologist.  Most MERS infections require close contact, she added.

A drug-resistant strain

Of the 15 TB cases, five of the people infected have strains that are resistant to at least one drug, O’Neal said. “We may have more people who are resistant,’’ he said. All 15 are currently undergoing treatment, O’Neal added.

About 400 people from the Peachtree-Pine shelter must be tested, along with 200 others from the Atlanta Mission.

The costs of testing plus possible treatment could be steep, O’Neal said.

TB is spread through the air from one person to another. Graphic from CDC

A similar outbreak among the homeless occurred in 2009, he said. Homeless people, O’Neal noted, “are vulnerable to so many other things’’ if their immune systems are compromised, including HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases.

TB is spread through the air from one person to another. The TB bacteria are dispersed into the air when a person with the disease of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

The disease usually affects the lungs, but can also affect the brain, kidneys, spine and other parts of the body.

TB is a massive killer worldwide, accounting for 2 million deaths annually. And it’s the leading cause of death for people infected with HIV, including in the United States.

The U.S. rate of TB has been declining. Georgia’s tuberculosis rate has also been dropping, but is still higher than the national average.

MERS not easily transmitted

The man in the new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) case took an airline flight out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, then made stops in London, Boston and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (on May 1) before arriving in Orlando, the CDC said.

MERS, which was first identified in a Saudi patient and has occurred mostly in the Middle East, has made headlines lately because of two cases detected in the United States.

Drenzek said Tuesday in a presentation to Public Health’s board that the majority of MERS infections have occurred in health care settings. She said it’s not easily transmitted from person to person.

There have been 538 cases of MERS confirmed worldwide, and 145 of those cases resulted in death, Drenzek said.

But she added, “There is no evidence of sustained spread of MERS.”

Each of the confirmed U.S. cases involved a health care worker from Saudi Arabia traveling to this country.

The virus generally has an incubation period of five days or less, with 14 days seeming to be the longest such period, Drenzek.

There’s no evidence of MERS transmissions occurring during airline flights, Drenzek said.

People who come into contact with an infected person should monitor their health for 14 days, she said. And in the new case, that period ends Wednesday, she said.

Meanwhile, in Florida, two health care workers who treated the MERS patient may have come down with the potentially lethal virus, hospital officials announced Tuesday, according to USA Today.