Tuberculosis comes to CMU campus

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/

On Feb. 11, an email was sent to the campus community about a case of tuberculosis (TB) on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, affecting a visiting researcher at the Heinz School.

The email, sent by director of Health Services Anita Barkin, said, “at this point, it appears that the individual’s contacts are limited to a small number of Heinz College community members.”

On Feb. 10, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) contacted Health Services regarding the researcher who had contracted the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, tuberculosis is caused by a bacterial infection which attacks the lungs, “but TB bacteria can attack any part of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.”

Last Thursday Dr. Barkin reported to The Tartan, “we have tested all of the close contacts and there are no additional active cases found.”

The individuals who were tested were identified as close contacts by the diagnosed person, and have all had negative results on their first-round test.

After eight to 10 weeks, they will be screened once again. “You can convert from negative to positive and it doesn’t mean you’re contagious,” Barkin explained, noting that without symptoms of active TB, an individual may have latent TB, which can be treated with medication.

Madelyn Miller, director of Environmental Health and Safety, said, “We followed Allegheny County’s guidance and our own guidelines,” revealing that they spoke with the diagnosed individual as well as the people who had been in “close, constant contact” with the person.

“To send out a mass communication would have been ineffective,” Miller explained. “We had to do this on a personal level. We were being ultra cautious, and contacted anyone who he could have breathed or coughed on.”

Barkin’s email warned, “It is important to know that you can only contact TB bacteria if you spend time near someone with TB disease,” adding, “the TB bacteria are put into the air when a person with active TB disease coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings.” It is not possible, however, to contract the disease from exposure to clothes, glasses, utensils, handshakes, toilets, or other surfaces with which people may touch.

Miller recalled that the university underwent a desktop drill simulating a meningitis outbreak in August, similar to a the recent outbreak at Princeton University.

“It was clear that we could handle a meningitis outbreak, which is much more contagious than tuberculosis,” Miller said.

If anyone has questions regarding the TB case or wishes to be tested they should call Health Services at (412) 268-2157.