Nearly 200 students at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico County may have been exposed to an active case of tuberculosis disease, while a possible case of pertussis, or whooping cough, was identified earlier this week at Henrico’s Springfield Park Elementary School.
According to a letter dated Monday and addressed to the Freeman community, officials with the Henrico Health Department are coordinating evaluation and testing of the faculty, staff and students who may have been exposed to tuberculosis, commonly referred to as TB.
“Approximately 189 students may have been exposed either in a class or on a bus,” said Andy Jenks, director of communications and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools, in an email.
While Dr. Susan Fischer Davis, the director of the county’s health department, declined to comment about the status of the confirmed active TB disease case, she stressed that the health department does not currently know of any active TB cases within Freeman.
“There is currently no known risk for TB at Freeman High School,” Fischer Davis said.
Early next week, the health department will begin screening and testing the students and faculty who may have been exposed to TB disease.
Meanwhile, the health department is not recommending any immediate preventive treatment for the students at Springfield Park Elementary unless they have exhibited a cough lasting more than two weeks or a cough with wheezing or vomiting, the letter to parents dated Tuesday states.
Pertussis — which is highly contagious and can be prevented through vaccination — is typically only life-threatening in infants and in those with compromised immune systems. Whether or not someone exposed to a case must seek preventive treatment, the letter explains, depends on the severity of the illness.
The symptoms of TB can include a bad cough that may become bloody, as well as chest pain, weakness, weight loss and a fever. About 80 percent of cases are considered pulmonary TB, meaning they affect the lungs, while 20 percent of cases affect other parts of the body.
Only active TB disease is contagious. The other type, referred to as latent TB infection, is not contagious. Those with latent TB typically do not show symptoms, and it can be detected only through a skin or blood test.
But both active TB disease and latent TB infection can be treated with antibiotics. Typically, patients are treated with four types of antibiotics for six months.
“What we try to do with someone with latent TB infection is treat them with antibiotics to get rid of those bacteria in their bodies that are sleeping,” Fischer Davis said. “If you have TB infection, there’s a risk — albeit small, under 10 percent — that at some point in your lifetime, the bacteria will wake up and you will have active TB.”
While it is an airborne disease, TB is not especially easy to spread. It is only released into the air when someone with pulmonary TB speaks, coughs, laughs or sings, but typically it is only spread to those with whom the patient spends a great deal of time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 — when the data were most recently available — there were 9,557 cases of TB reported in the U.S.; in 1982, there were more than 25,000 cases.
Though there is no preventive measure such as a vaccine to protect the general population from TB, it has become far less prevalent in the U.S. due to stronger treatments and the effort to detect and treat latent TB infection before it becomes active TB — and thus contagious.
“But TB is still a worldwide problem, so while we’ve been effective in decreasing (the prevalence), it still remains a big problem in the rest of the world,” Fischer Davis said.
Freeman parents were informed of the TB situation either through email Monday evening or by a letter given to students Tuesday morning.
The school is planning two information meetings about TB and the risk of transmission for 6 p.m. today in the gymnasium, followed by another Thursday during student lunch hours for Freeman students, faculty and staff.
Earlier this year, Freeman also had a case of mumps, as did Mills Godwin High and Tuckahoe Middle schools.
Though mumps can be prevented with a vaccine, cases of the illness can still be found in a well-vaccinated population.