Staff shortages hampering TB treatment as hospital tests patients in new outbreak

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Managers at a leading hospital have alerted 100 patients after a worker developed tuberculosis.

Harefield Hospital in west London is contacting all those thought to have come into contact with the unnamed member of staff during the past two months.

Patients will be offered "appropriate follow-up" treatment for the highly infectious disease, which may include screening and antibiotics.

TB used to be regarded as a killer disease but is now treatable with drugs, although health groups have warned of a huge rise in the number of cases in Britain. Figures from the Public Health Laboratory Service show the number of cases in England and Wales rose from 5,085 in 1987 to 6,797 in 2000. Tuberculosis rates in Britain had been in decline for 200 years until 1987.

There are now more cases of TB in London than in any other European city, with two deaths and 50 new reports every week.

The British Thoracic Society – the UK's professional body of respiratory specialists – warned earlier this month that there was a "desperate shortage" of staff to monitor and treat tuberculosis in hospitals.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust said the healthcare worker was in contact with patients from mid-November to mid-December, and had since developed infectious TB. She refused to reveal which department of the hospital the worker was from but said the trust regretted any distress caused to patients.

The disease, which usually affects the lungs, can go undetected for several months before the sufferer begins to develop symptoms. These can include fever and night sweats, coughing, weight loss and coughing up blood.

There was a string of TB outbreaks in hospitals earlier this year. Grampian Health Board in Scotland screened patients in August after a healthcare worker at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was feared to have contracted the disease.

More patients were alerted in West Bromwich in June when a nurse at Sandwell General Hospital was diagnosed with the illness. And at Barnet General Hospital, north London, 30 patients were screened after sharing a ward with a sufferer.

Thirteen children were tested at the Countess of Chester Hospital in Chester in May when their doctor contracted the disease and hundreds more patients were screened at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, after a member of staff was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the same month.

In January, babies in a special care unit were tested when a cleaner contracted the disease, and there have also been a number of outbreaks involving schools.

Some 400 children were screened at Ninian Park Primary School in Cardiff in June; more than 200 were tested at Aberdeen Grammar School in May, and three young children at the Wee Ones nursery school in Wandsworth, south-west London, were feared to have caught the disease from a teacher, also in May.

A total of 62 children and adults at Crown Hills Community College in Leicester were diagnosed with the illness in April in what was believed to be the worst outbreak in Britain for 20 years.

More than 1,300 pupils were screened at Duffryn High School in Newport, south Wales, when eight children were diagnosed with the disease, also in April.

¿ Harefield Hospital is contacting all patients that it believes may have been exposed to TB and has also set up an advice line for any other patients who believe they may be at risk on 020 8867 1431.

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