With a sense of urgency, Sacramento and Solano County officials were tracking down the parents of 35 babies Tuesday, warning them that the infants had been exposed to tuberculosis while housed in two hospital neonatal intensive care units.
County and hospital officials hoped to reach all of the parents within the day to warn them that 20 babies in Sacramento County and 15 in Solano County needed testing or immediate antibiotics because their tender ages put them at greater risk of contracting tuberculosis.
While it's rare for neonatal intensive care units to emerge as potential breeding grounds for such a serious disease, the counties deemed it prudent to act swiftly because little babies are uniquely vulnerable, said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, chief health officer of Sacramento County.
The incident does not necessarily signal a rise in tuberculosis cases, Kasirye said.
Historically, California, with its large immigrant population, has seen a persistent threat of tuberculosis, requiring continual vigilance and speedy follow-up. However, according to the California Department of Public Health, the number of reported cases has dropped slightly in recent years. The year 2010 saw 2,317 cases, 12 fewer than the year before, the department reported. As recently as 2006 and 2007, tuberculosis cases stood at 2,779 and 2,726, respectively.
Still, health officials at times find themselves having to take extraordinary steps to curb the spread of the disease, such as in the recent case of a Stockton man arrested in San Francisco because he refused his tuberculosis medicine.
When active cases of tuberculosis which was once considered an eradicated disease are diagnosed, doctors are required to report them to the state within 24 hours. Then, county health officials and hospital workers work quickly to determine the carrier's recent whereabouts.
In the case of the babies, it was determined that an individual visited the neonatal intensive care unit at Sacramento's Sutter Memorial Hospital, at 5151 F St., between March 14 and March 31. A total of 20 babies received care at Sutter during that time.
The same individual visited the neonatal intensive care unit of NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield from March 31 to April 2, and from April 11 to April 19, where 15 babies were put at risk, said Dr. Michael Stacey, Solano County chief medical officer.
Health officials are forbidden by privacy laws to disclose the identity of patients, and they did not say why the person with tuberculosis was visiting the neonatal centers. They did say that the patient was a Solano County resident not a hospital staff member now in isolation and receiving treatment.
Following notification of the babies' parents, hospital staff and visitors in the two counties will be told of their possible exposure to tuberculosis.
Despite the swift precautions, Kasirye said, "We believe that the risk of infection with tuberculosis in this particular case is low."
Treatment for an active case of tuberculosis may involve as many as four antibiotics for as long as six months. Isolation lasts only two weeks, so long as the patient can demonstrate compliance with his or her course of treatment, Kasirye said.
Tuberculosis is a life-threatening airborne communicable disease caused by slow-growing bacteria in the lungs. Active cases can spread the disease through the air by emitting microscopic droplets of germs. Coughing, sneezing, talking in the vicinity of others, or singing to a baby can be enough to spread the germs.
Symptoms of tuberculosis include a cough that lasts longer than two weeks, coughing up blood, weakness or fatigue, weight loss and lack of appetite, according to the state Department of Public Health.
People who have diabetes, weakened immune systems, or who recently breathed air shared by an infectious person or who have immigrated within the past five years from nations with high tuberculosis rates should be tested for tuberculosis, department officials said.
Some may test positive for latent tuberculosis rather than active tuberculosis and may carry the germ for years, never becoming seriously ill, said Dr. Louise McNitt, president of the California Tuberculosis Controllers Association. These people are protected by stronger immune systems, said McNitt, and are not considered infectious.