TB Flight Scare Reaches Savannah

Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport
Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport

Doctors told him he was seriously ill, but he flew anyway, triggering a worldwide health alert.

The man has a very dangerous form of tuberculosis. Doctors diagnosed him, warned him he could be contagious, and told him not to travel. But he did anyway, flying to his wedding in Greece.

Now health teams are trying to find anyone who came in contact with him.

At Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, the news traveled fast.

"Is this a TB scare we are interviewing for?" asked traveler George Mehrtens.

"It makes me nervous and I think its rude of someone to get on a plane with that disease," said angry passenger Kelsey Gillis.

"It makes you look at the next person sitting beside you," explained Crystal Chisholm.

But most passengers flying from Savannah weren't so worried.

"I was surprised but its bound to happen with international travel the way it is," said Mehrtens.

"My concern is just getting where my destination is," said Chisholm. "That's all I'm concerned about."

As an Epidemiologist for the Chatham County Health Department, Robert Thornton says folks shouldn't be worried to step on a plane now.

"I would say folks should have a sense of awareness but not a sense of panic," said Thornton.

There have only been 49 cases of Extremely Drug-resistant tuberculosis or XDR-TB in the United States since 1993.

Even if a case was found, Thornton says conditions have to be right to pass the disease on.

"Tuberculosis is surprisingly quite fragile to the environment," explains Thornton. "The conditions have to be just right. It has to be inhaled into the lungs or phalanx."

But planes are still a potential problem are for airborne disease like TB. That's because the vents use predominantly recycled air. Which means the same air is passed through the plane over and over. Air which could potentially carry disease.

But Thornton says TB isn't the only potential health issue on a plane, or anywhere where people congregate.

"Folks who spend time around other folks are likely to come into contact with different organisms such as common cold, skin infections," says Thornton.

So avoiding the airport won't guarantee you will stay healthy, but staying aware just might.

Thornton says another way to keep disease from spreading through the air seems simple, but many people forget. Cover your mouth or nose when you cough or sneeze.

Use your elbow rather than your hand, so the next thing you touch won't pass those germs on to someone else.

The man is in the hospital in Atlanta under the first government-ordered quarantine in more than twenty years. He will be moved to a Denver hospital on Thursday.

This strain of TB he has is highly dangerous and highly contagious.

Reported By: Andrew Davis adavis@wtoc.com