TB scare aboard US Airways Express flight from Austin to Phoenix

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Steve Bodinet

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 6:45 AM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 10 at 1:13 PM

PHOENIX -- Dozens of people aboard a US Airways Express flight from Austin have been advised to get tuberculosis tests and vaccinations after a passenger was taken off the plane in a face mask.

Flight 2846 operated by Mesa Air came in from Austin, landing at Sky Harbor International Airport just before 5 p.m. Saturday. More than 70 people were on board.

Passengers said they were not allowed to get off the plane right away. Rather, paramedics and police officers boarded, put a medical face mask on a man and then escorted him off the plane.

One of those first responders reportedly told the remaining passengers that they might want to get TB shots.

While US Airways officials confirmed that a passenger on the flight had a medical issue, they have not said what that condition is.

Bill McGlahsen of US Airways told 3TV the man was cleared to fly when he boarded in Austin, but his status was changed to "no-fly" while the plane was in the air. He said he did not know why. He confirmed that the passenger was being monitored, but he did not know if the man, who is cooperating with Maricopa County health officials, was in the hospital.

At this point, the airline is declining to comment on anything else related to flight 2846.

Dean Davidson of Flagstaff was on that plane and he wants an answer to the question everyone is asking: How could something like this happen?

"US Airways dropped the ball big time," he told 3TV's Jill Galus in a phone interview Monday morning.

This is not the first time TB has made headlines in Arizona this year. In April, a student at Desert Mountain High School was diagnosed with active tuberculosis. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health tested students that were exposed.

"This is not an uncommon situation," said Dr. Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said in early May. "We have 150 to 200 or so cases of active TB every year. This is, in fact, the third time this year we've had one in a high school."

TB, which most commonly attacks the lungs, is spread through the air -- when somebody with an active infection coughs of sneezes -- and is contagious. Most doctors say prolonged exposure is necessary for an infection to take hold so the chances of contracting the disease during a two-hour flight are relatively low.

"You're much more likely to get tuberculosis from someone you live with or work with than from a stranger," reads MayoClinic.com page on TB and its causes.

Most infections are latent, which means they never progress to full-blown disease and cannot be passed along to others. Latent TB can become active TB, but that is not common.

If the disease does develop, however, it can be fatal if not treated. That treatment generally takes several months, in some cases up to two years.

Symptoms of active TB can be mild at first, and includes a cough that produces thick mucus that is sometimes bloody, fatigue, weight loss, night sweats, fever, rapid heartbeat and possibly swelling in the neck.

Like many infections, the chance of developing TB is higher in children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems.

A tuberculin skin test can determine if bacterial infection is present, but it does not differentiate between active and latent infections. It also cannot determine when infection occurred. If a skin test comes back positive, more tests, including a chest X-ray and lab work, are required.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TB was once the leading cause of death in the United States.

Last December, the Food and Drug Administration approved a Johnson & Johnson drug to fight TB. Sirturo was the first new TB drug  in more than 40 years. It's designed to be used in combination with older drugs to treat a hard-to-treat strain of the bacteria.

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