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Atlanta Hospital Employee Exposed Hundreds to Tuberculosis

BananaStock/Thinkstock(ATLANTA) -- An infected employee exposed nearly 800 people to tuberculosis at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the hospital confirmed Friday.

"At this time, there are 680 patients, and approximately 100 employees who have been identified as having been in contact with the infected individual," Lance Skelly, a spokesman for the hospital, said in a statement. "Each person has been contacted and provided proactive screening instructions. Post-exposure follow-up will also be provided free of charge through the patient's local county health department."

TB, a bacterial infection, can be transmitted through a cough or sneeze. And although it responds well to treatment when caught early, it can cause permanent lung damage, and even death if left untended.

"The vast majority of TB strains are quite susceptible to drugs," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "If a patient is adherent to the treatment program, which can last nine months, they can be cured and quickly rendered safe for interaction with others."

Roughly 11,500 TB cases were reported in the United States in 2009, 59 percent of which occurred in people born outside the U.S., according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 544 deaths from TB in 2007, the most recent year for which the CDC has data. Frequent contact with people who have TB, poor nutrition and unsanitary living conditions are risk factors for the disease.

But how the Emory University Hospital employee became infected is unclear. Most hospitals, Emory University Hospital included, require staff to have a TB skin test before they are hired and every year after, Schaffner said.

"The question is: Did this employee evade the TB screening process, or did this person develop their illness between screenings," Schaffner said. "This is a kind of unsettling event, but it's an event that occasionally happens despite our best efforts to prevent it."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio