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Ottawa Public Health warns of possible tuberculosis exposure at Sacred Heart High School

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is warning students, families and staff at a local high school about a risk of exposure to tuberculosis (TB).

In a letter families and staff, obtained by CTV News Ottawa, OPH says that some students and staff at Sacred Heart High School in Stittsville might have been exposed to tuberculosis bacteria between November 2022 and October 2023. OPH says it was not known during that time that there was a risk for TB in the school. The school has students ranging from grades 7 to 12.

OPH added the risk of the disease spreading is low.

"At this time, OPH is not aware of any person who could spread TB, who is attending or working at Sacred Heart High School," the letter says.

A spokesperson for the Ottawa Catholic School Board directed all questions to Ottawa Public Health. In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, OPH said it is aware of approximately 115 people at Sacred Heart High School who might have been exposed to TB at the school and the investigation is ongoing. OPH reiterated that it is not aware of anyone attending or working at Sacred Heart High School who is currently infectious.

"OPH is continuing to work with school administration and staff to provide support and information for youth, parents/guardians and staff," the statement said.

OPH is recommending that the students and staff who might have been exposed be tested. OPH nurses will be at the school during the weeks of Dec. 11 to 15, 2023 and Jan. 8 to 12, 2024 to perform the tests.

"The timing of the TB skin test is very important as the test must be given after a certain time to ensure a true result," OPH says.

Students and staff who have not been directly contacted by OPH do not need to be tested.

OPH will also be holding a general information session about TB for staff, students, and their parents or guardians at Sacred Heart High School on Tuesday. Two brief presentations will be provided starting at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., each followed by a question-and-answer period with a public health nurse.

A letter to the families of students who might have been exposed says it is possible that their child might have breathed in TB bacteria and will need to take a TB skin test.

"Ottawa Public Health will give the TB skin test during school hours," the letter says. "Your child should return to the school to see the public health nurse two days after the test is done to read the results."

OPH says if a test comes back positive, the nurse will arrange, with a parent's or guardian's consent, to have the child to visit a doctor who is specially trained in tuberculosis. Anyone with a positive skin test should undergo a chest x-ray and medical assessment to rule out TB disease.

Grade 12 student Lucas Galan received one of the exposure letters Monday.

"It's really upsetting that after a full year later and a month they message you randomly out of the blue that you might have tuberculosis, that’s not cool," Galan said. "I got the email last night but lots of people in my friends group have also."

Galan says he's had no symptoms, but hearing about the possible exposure is stressful.

"It's a scary thing to think about when you have school, what you're going to do when you're graduating, and now tuberculosis," he said. "The pessimist in me keeps thinking of I'm one of them and that's stressful. It's hard; just a feeling of dread like an 'Oh crap, it's a thing, I could have it, there's a chance.'"

Lucas Galan, a Grade 12 student at Sacred Heart High School, was one of the approximately 115 students and staff at the school to receive notice of a possible exposure to tuberculosis. Ottawa, Ont. Dec. 5, 2023. (Tyler Fleming / CTV News)

Cardiologist and medical journalism freelancer Dr. Chris Labos told iHeartRadio's The Vassy Kapelos Show with guest host Graham Richardson that the wide net of dates is likely because someone tested positive and health officials are essentially working backwards through their contacts.

"It probably means there was somebody either attending or working in the school who was ultimately diagnosed with a tuberculosis infection or possibly active TB," Labos said. "So, that's really the window of exposure and that's why they're casting such a large net. That's the most likely explanation."

Labos said TB has long been a serious disease, but it is treatable now through antibiotics, which means it's not something that many people in North America think about regularly.

"We are no longer seeing as much TB as we were seeing in the early part of the 20th century, but there is still a lot of TB out there. There is still quite a bit of tuberculosis, especially up north," he said. "We still do see TB, we just don't see it as much as we used to, which is why stories like this are shocking."

How does TB spread?

Ottawa Public Health says tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that are spread from person to person through the air, typically through coughing or sneezing. The disease usually affects the lungs, but can also affect other parts of the body, such as the brain, the kidneys or the spine.

People who are close to a person with TB for a long period of time can breathe in the TB bacteria. When this happens, it is called TB infection or latent tuberculosis infection. At this time, the individual is not contagious and does not feel sick; however, the TB bacteria in their body can develop into TB disease in the future.

"A person develops TB disease when his or her immune system cannot stop the TB bacteria from growing. This happens when a person is sick, stressed, not eating well or has other illnesses such as cancer, diabetes or HIV/AIDS," OPH says. "With TB disease, the bacteria are growing, the person feels sick and the bacteria can be spread to other people."

A person with TB disease might have the following symptoms:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Health-care providers can recommend medicine for people with a TB infection to prevent it from developing into TB disease. TB disease can be cured and is treated through a daily antibiotics regimen that lasts at least six months. 

Infectious diseases specialst Dr. Isaac Bogoch said tuberculosis is an ancient disease, but it's not uncommon.

"There are occasional exposures to tuberculosis and that means someone had what's known as the active form of the infection in that institution and that other people may have been exposed to it," he explained. "If there was a true exposure, some people may go on medications at some point in time to reduce the risk of getting active tuberculosis at a later date."

Bogoch said most people won't even know they have the bacteria. 

"If people get exposed to tuberculosis, often times they'll breath it in, it gets into the lungs, and your body will fight it off and your immune cells will essentially create a wall around the bacteria. You won’t know you have this infection, you won't feel sick, you won't be contagious to others; you'll feel totally fine and most people will live a long, healthy, happy life and not even know that this exists. But in about seven to 10 per cent of people, at some point in their life, that tuberculosis that is latent inside their chest, that’s asleep inside their chest, will wake up and cause active disease and that’s the classic form of tuberculosis: cough, fever, sputum production, weight loss."

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Tyler Fleming.

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