Cancer patients, hospital workers possibly exposed to tuberculosis

SEATTLE -- More than 100 cancer patients in the Pacific Northwest are being warned that a health care worker may have exposed them to tuberculosis.

The disease, according to doctors, can make already-vulnerable patients even sicker because of their weakened immune systems.

The Seattle and King County Department of Health said officials are in the process of notifying about 140 cancer patients who could have been exposed. In addition, nearly 50 hospital employees have already undergone testing.

“We recognize as cancer patients this news is disconcerting,” said Dr. Steven Pergam, director of Infection Control at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Tuberculosis specialists told reporters on Tuesday that dozens of cancer patients and health care workers at the UW Medical Center and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance could be at risk for TB after an employee tested positive for the disease.

“The good thing about TB is that it’s very treatable and we expect this health care worker to do very well,” said Dr. Tim Dellit, associate dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Washington.

Health officials said the employee at first thought they only had a cough, but when the cough didn’t go away, doctors tested the worker and discovered they had TB.

Now around 140 patients who may have been in close contact with the health care worker between February and July of 2016 are being offered TB testing at no charge.

“These tests are really being done as an abundance of caution,” said Pergam. “We think the risk is low in patients involved in this exposure.”

But doctors worry cancer patients could have a higher risk of infection. While people with normal immune systems sometimes don’t develop symptoms for a couple years, people going through cancer treatment could show signs within weeks or months.

“They’re more likely to develop active disease than in a shorter time frame than a normal person with an adequate immune system,” Pergam added.

The infected health care worker is undergoing treatment and doctors believe they will fully recover.

“I think this healthcare worker also did everything possible to protect the patients and the colleagues of this individual,” said Dellit.

UW Medicine opened a nurse call line for patients, staff and family members to call with any questions.

The number to call is 1-855-520-8600.