More than 800 exposed to TB at Ga. hospital

An employee infected  with tuberculosis at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., may have exposed close to 800 people to tuberculosis, including 680 patients.

TB is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through a cough or sneeze. It responds well to early treatment but it can cause permanent lung damage and death if not treated, ABC News reports.

"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, according to ABC News. "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."

Approximately one in 10 people with latent TB develops active TB, which can cause a cough, sweating, fever, weight loss and fatigue. Those at a higher risk for active TB are infants, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems. There were 11,500 TB cases reported in the United States in 2009.

"The vast majority of TB strains are quite susceptible to drugs," Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said, according to ABC News. "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."

Staff members are required to have a TB skin test before they are hired and each year after. The hospital is unclear as to how the employee became infected.

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