TD critical of city hospital’s handling of TB outbreak

At least 12 employees at University Hospital Galway, including nurses and care staff, have contracted latent tuberculosis from a patient who was diagnosed with the active form of the condition at the facility earlier this year.

A patient was also identified with latent TB bringing the total number affected so far to 13. People with latent TB do not have symptoms and cannot spread the bacteria to others. However, if the infection become active in their bodies and multiplies, they will become sick. For this reason, people with latent TB infection receive treatment to prevent them developing the disease.

Local Independent TD Catherine Connolly, who highlighted the issue, is critical of the way the outbreak was handled by the Saolta University Health Care Group - which runs the local public hospitals - particularly the action taken when the first patient was diagnosed.

“It would seem that it took quite a number of weeks for a diagnosis to be given during which time the patient was moved between wards, increasing the number of staff and patients exposed to the contagious disease. In fact I was informed that even following the diagnosis of active TB it took another 24 hours before the patient was isolated. It would appear that the appropriate protocols were not implemented,” she alleged.

Deputy Connolly outlined she is “very concerned” about the people who were exposed to TB and the manner in which they were informed and treated. Employees told her that they felt isolated and that “no one cared for them”. “This is a matter I will be closely monitoring,” she added.

Deputy Connolly tabled a series of questions to the Minister for Health to find out exactly what happened in relation to the TB issue and is awaiting a reply.

“In the meantime, given the seriousness of the matter I raised it with the Minister for Health as an urgent issue last Thursday. Regretfully, he was not available and left it to the Junior Minister, Catherine Byrne. Minister Byrne, while confirming that a number of staff had been exposed to a patient with active TB, she also quite honestly said that she simply couldn’t answer the specific questions. She could only read from the reply she had been given which utterly failed to deal with these most serious questions.

“The Minister of State apologised for this lack of information and she said she would ensure that the Minister for Health would respond to me and provide full information.”

Deputy Connolly said what was particularly worrying about Minister Byrne’s response, however, was her confirmation that “a review will take place under the hospital’s Quality and Safety Processes”.

“This begs the question as to why a review has not been completed at this point and whether it is happening now as a result of the publicity.”

When asked for a response to Deputy Connolly’s comments, Saolta University Health Care Group issued the following statement: “Cases of tuberculosis (TB ) are identified in Galway University Hospitals several times each year. TB is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. It can be spread by breathing in these bacteria if they are sneezed or coughed by someone who has TB in their lungs. TB is not very infectious; close, prolonged contact with a sick person is usually needed to become infected.

“When a case of TB disease is diagnosed the hospital works with the HSE Department of Public Health to provide screening for the family and for patients and staff who had close contact with the person, in line with best medical practice. This is called contact tracing and can involve a skin test, a blood test, or a chest X ray.

“Infection with the TB bacteria may not develop into TB disease. Most people who are exposed to TB are able to overcome the bacteria. The bacteria become inactive, but they remain dormant (asleep ) in the body and can become active later. This is called latent TB infection and people who have this do not feel unwell and cannot pass TB on to others. They may develop TB disease later in life and are offered treatment for up to six months to prevent this.”

TB was very common in Ireland in the past, especially in the early 1950s, when up to 7,000 cases were recorded annually. It is less common today. In 2016, there were 319 cases reported in Ireland, 17 of which were in Galway city and county.

Since 2013, an average of 26 cases were diagnosed in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon annually which is about one new case every two weeks.ie/notifiablediseases/weeklyidreports/ For further information log on to www.hpsc.ie/a-z/vaccinepreventable/tuberculosistb/

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