Passenger On Northwest Last Week Had Tuberculosis

If you happened to be on Northwest Airlines Flight 51 from Frankfurt to Detroit last Tuesday, and you were one of the 17 unlucky passengers who sat near enough to Mr. Fancypants Lung Disease Person, you can look forward to a call from the CDC telling you that you need to get tested for tuberculosis. The risk of catching the disease is low, but the CDC is contacting passengers as a “cautionary move” according to the Associated Press. And if for some reason you do end up with TB, please do not get on any airplanes.

“Passenger on Frankfurt-to-Detroit flight had TB” [Associated Press]
(Photo: FlyGuy92586)

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  1. Homerjay loves stars. :) says:

    Dear Consumerist,
    You are hereby on notice. There is only room for one “fancypants” around here. Keep it up and I’ll sue your ass.

    Signed,
    Roy Pearson

  2. MalcoveMagnesia says:

    If I knew I had TB, the first place I would get me to is a hospital and not onto a flying sardine can.

    But I guess every traveler is different, yes?

    • tc4b says:

      @MalcoveMagnesia: Do we know why he was flying? Was his mother on her deathbed? Maybe not, but it’s a little presumptuous to paint a picture where the guy, upon getting diagnosed, immediately says “Hot damn! Where’s the nearest airport?”

    • oneliketadow says:

      @MalcoveMagnesia: There was that douchebag that flew into Denver a year or so ago and knew he had TB. I think if you know you have TB and choose to fly, you should be charged with a crime.

      Here’s the story about the “TB guy”:

      [en.wikipedia.org]

      • Groovymarlin says:

        @oneliketadow: Yeah, whatever happened to that douchebag? Apparently, not much (according to the Wikipedia article).

      • Chongo says:

        @oneliketadow: There are various forms of TB… I know a couple people who have the inactive strain but show up positive with TB. Its not entirely common but its not a crazy huge deal either. They both had to take 9 months worth of some pill and couldn’t drink any alcohol the whole time… after that, regular checkups and they are fine. As far as contagiousness goes, you would have to wrap your lips around their mouths and breath in their exhalation for days on end.

        • Starfury says:

          @Chongo: I used to work in a hospital and we’d get TB patients in all the time. If they had active TB we’d make them wear a mask; if they were inactive they didn’t need one.

          To get TB from someone that is active they pretty much have to cough out a bunch of spittle and you need to breath it in. Each year I worked there I’d have to get a TB test because there was a small chance I could catch it.

          • oneliketadow says:

            @Starfury: Might not be as true for someone with a weaker immune system though, someone already sick, with cancer, babies, older folks, etc.

  3. Cornelius047 says:

    I wonder if the airline has any official policy on this.

    Maybe a $50 communicable disease fee should be implemented?

  4. oneandone says:

    Reminds me of something I overheard on a DC bus during inauguration weekend. On a packed bus, the woman right behind me said, “I wasn’t going to come, since I was feeling bad and the doctor said I have strep. But I didn’t want to miss this!” Because, clearly, the best thing to do when you have a highly contagious infection is go get on a bus filled with people – taking you to an event where you will be jammed next to thousands of other people.

  5. redskull says:

    I have no idea what the airline policy is, but I’m betting they can’t stop someone with TB from boarding or even warn anyone on the flight because of “right to privacy.”

    Years ago I was visiting my grandmother in the nursing home, which was also where my sister also worked. I noticed that right outside the room across the hall was a box filled with disposable masks, gloves & gowns. The door to this room was wide open. I asked my sister what was going on inside, and she said the woman in that room had TB and everyone had to put all the extra gear on before entering. Alarmed, I asked why there wasn’t a warning sign on the door, and why the freakin’ door was being left wide open. She said it was because of right to privacy. A sign warning those of us who’d rather not contract TB not to enter would violate the patient’s privacy.

    So apparently not embarrassing someone who has a disease is more important than spreading it to innocent bystanders.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @redskull: “they can’t stop someone with TB from boarding or even warn anyone on the flight because of “right to privacy.””

      Sure they can. They’re calling everyone who sat near him on the plane. And internationally, you’re not allowed to fly if you have various diseases.

      It’s not foolproof, though — people lie. My college roommate was exposed to TB (and a bad form of it) by a couple of students from Africa, one of whom knew she had TB but was extremely desperate to get to the U.S. and “lost” the paperwork and lied her way onto the plane. Pretty much went right to the ER (where my roommate worked) as soon as she landed in the U.S.

      The state of Indiana takes that shit seriously. My roommate had to get tested and report her test to the state for like three straight years (and at first it was like the chest X-ray test every three months, no playing around!). *I* had to get tested (twice, IIRC, six months apart) just because I lived with her.

    • TacoChuck says:

      @redskull: Easy enough to find out, but guessing is probably more fun.

      From the NWA contract of carriage, Rule 35, Section 76

      REFUSAL TO TRANSPORT -76
      F) CONDITIONS OF PASSENGER ACCEPTANCE -76
      IN THE FOLLOWING CATEGORIES REFUSAL OR REMOVAL MAY BE NECESSARY FOR THE COMFORT AND SAFETY OF THEMSELVES OR OTHER PASSENGERS:
      1) PERSONS WHO ARE KNOWN TO, OR APPEAR TO HAVE A COMMUNICABLE DISEASE OR INFECTION TRANSMISSIBLE IN THE NORMAL COURSE OF A FLIGHT.
      NOTE: NW MAY ACCEPT SUCH PASSENGERS PROVIDED THAT
      1) THEY HAVE A PHYSICIAN’S STATEMENT INDICATING FITNESS TO TRAVEL, INDICATING REASONABLE PRECAUTIONS NECESSARY FOR SAFE TRAVEL, AND
      2) THEY DO NOT POSE A THREAT TO OTHER TRAVELING PASSENGERS.

    • mmmsoap says:

      @redskull:

      A sign warning those of us who’d rather not contract TB not to enter would violate the patient’s privacy.

      So apparently not embarrassing someone who has a disease is more important than spreading it to innocent bystanders.

      Seriously, you’d prefer that we spread your private medical information to everyone that might have a chance of contracting it, rather than trust you to be responsible? Because if the law protects your privacy, it needs to protect everyone’s.

      Honestly, if this occurred after HIPAA was passed, then your sister was breaking the law. There are plenty of ways to keep people safe without violating privacy, including reminding people about universal precautions and expecting that they don’t go wandering into random patient rooms. Or telling visitors that a patient has been diagnosed with TB, without disclosing who it was.

      As others have said, the airline/CDC is doing the right thing here. Clearly, the name of the passenger is not being disclosed. And those who are at risk have been notified, without violating anyone’s right to privacy.

  6. oneandone says:

    It also might be worth mentioning that quite a few people have TB – more than 13,200 cases were reported in 2007 (last year that full annual data is availible for the US). Only 116 of them were resistant to multiple drugs, and a handful every year are extensively drug resistant (XDR TB – like the one that made news last year).

    ([jama.ama-assn.org])

    13,200 is slightly less than the # who reported pertussis (whooping cough), which is much more contagious and also vaccinatable.
    ([www.cdc.gov])

    And once you start looking at the CDC MMWR summaries, the fun never stops….

  7. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Are we talking about a person with dormant TB (which is harmless and can’t be communicated) or a person who has active TB (hacking and sneezing and being generally terrible)…I feel there should be a distinction, because dormant TB is entirely harmless and in most people, it never becomes active.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: And don’t you test positive for it for the rest of your life once you’ve had it?

      • oneandone says:

        @Eyebrows McGee (on Twitter: LPetelle): Unless you go through the full course of treatment for active TB (6-9 months drug therapy…. sounds like you’re familiar w it).

        Nursing and medical students (and other who will be working with patients in hospitals, nursing homes, etc) get routinely tested for it, and a lot of people are surprised to find out that they have dormant TB. That happened to a few friends of mine, so they had the full drug course before they could work in the hospitals – and no drinking for half a year, or they risk liver damage.

        We did a lot of reading on it. And they are now doctors very familiar w the subject. From what I undersand, w/o treatment you’re a carrier for a long time.

        @pecan: I assumed the article meant the obvious kind of TB. Or a kind that became active immediately after the flight & required an ER visit.

        • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

          @oneandone: Interesting, thanks.

        • Chongo says:

          @oneandone: yeah I stated that a few comments above… but I have a feeling from this article and the reaction of the CDC that it’s like Doc Holiday level TB…

          //I’m your huckleberry

          • oneandone says:

            @Chongo: yeah – sorry I missed your comment. Sounds like everyone knows someone who has dormant TB.

            Also, poor doc holiday. Always made me sad :-(

  8. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    pecan 3.14159265: I mean to clarify, also, I’m talking about the consumerist article itself, differentiating between active TB and dormant (or latent) TB because there are thousands of people with latent TB, and no one wants to start waving pitchforks and fiery sticks, now do we…

  9. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Eyebrows McGee (on Twitter: LPetelle): I believe you do test positive for TB once you get it from someone else (who obviously had active TB), but it doesn’t mean you’ll ever get active TB yourself. It just means you have the bacteria. I think you test positive for it regardless of whether you ever have active TB, but I think it’s important to distinguish that the airplane passenger had active TB. If he had latent TB, no one would know. He would be like you or I walking down the street, perfectly healthy.

    I’m just trying to deal with the misconception that anyone “with TB” is contagious, even though most people have latent TB which is harmless and can’t be communicated.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: I’m guessing it must have been active or the CDC wouldn’t care. My MIL had active TB as a teenager and has been “latent” ever since. I think she has to get one of those doctor’s notes to leave the country, but that’s about it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Apparently the dry air on the plane greatly increases the risk of TB transmission. There is some paper about it:

    http://www.cieh.org/library/Knowledge/Public_health/JEHR/JEHRVol3Iss1-CommonColdAircraft.pdf

    The focus of the paper is common cold, but they mention TB as well.

  11. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Eyebrows McGee (on Twitter: LPetelle): Yeah the CDC wouldn’t have known he had TB unless it was active. But from seeing the list of TB symptoms, it seems like an extremely wretched state of being and I feel bad for the passengers who had to be near the guy.

  12. Xay says:

    @redskull

    It’s called HIPAA. Just because a disease is reportable and infectious doesn’t mean that everyone who walks past your door has a right to know your disease status.

  13. Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

    Mr. Fancy Pants Lung Disease Person just wanted to buy an American made automobile…

  14. nakedscience says:

    @ redskull “A sign warning those of us who’d rather not contract TB not to enter would violate the patient’s privacy.”

    So were you planning on entering that room without permission? Something tells me you weren’t. If you’re at a hospital, don’t go into a room unless you 1) know the person and 2) have permission. If you enter a room otherwise, you are an idiot. If you are at a hospital, you should be well aware that there are sick people present. It will not help you to know every status of every patient there, would it? No.

    People DO have a right to privacy. Period. People also have a right to not be caged and treated like animals just because they have a disease. The patient was in a hospital where they are able to treat her accordingly. Period.

  15. mad3air says:

    I worked at a restaurant a few years ago where one of the dishwashers in the back had TB. We all had to come in for a Saturday meeting and get tested.
    Luckily, I didn’t get get it. A few of the workers in the kitchen did, however, and apparently have to take medicine for the rest of their lives to keep it in the dormant stage.

  16. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    mad3air: treatment is (at most) 16 months. I doubt anyone has to take medication for the rest of their lives.

  17. richcreamerybutter says:

    That’s “Herr Fancypants Lung Disease Person” to you!

  18. fatcop says:

    Where I live, 95% of active TB is confined to the criminal class.

    • oneandone says:

      @fatcop: My first guess is that you live in Russia. I think MDR TB started in Russian jails. Or definitely reached critical mass there.
      ([www.pbs.org])

      My second guess is that you live in New York. Rikers Island (prison) has its own TB clinic – though incidence seems to be down since the early 1990s.
      ([www.nyc.gov])

  19. INsano says:

    Stock market crash-check.
    Depression-check.
    Tuberculosis-check.

    Are we going to reopen Ellis Island immigration center too, if for no other reason than the nostalgia of sending back immigrants with infectious diseases and “unacceptable” nations or origin?

  20. rlee says:

    Like Pecan Pi says. I was immunized against TB as a child. It means I will always test positive in the usual TB skin test, but I am no more “infected” or contagious than someone who was similarly immunized against Measles or Chicken Pox.

  21. Giovani Alfredo Urrutia says:

    TB can take up to a year to get rid of.
    My friends and I went to Iraq and a few of them came back with TB.
    I don’t have it. And Ive been with them for 2 years after that.
    This isn’t something people should be worried about.