ISLE of WIGHT COUNTY, Va. (WVEC) -- The Isle of Wight Health Department is working with Smithfield Foods after an employee at the company contracted Tuberculosis (TB).

Amal Patel, District Epidemiologist with Western Tidewater Health District, said health officials are conducting a TB contact investigation because a case had been identified recently.

A contact investigation identifies close contacts who may have been exposed to an active case of Tuberculosis. Officials evaluate if those people have TB infection (latent) or TB disease (active).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains:

Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but TB bacteria can attack any part of the body such as the kidney, spine, and brain. Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. As a result, two TB-related conditions exist: latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.

Patel said TB is spread by people who have the disease in their lungs. When they cough, sneeze, or spit, they spread the bacteria into the air.

He told 13News Now because the bacteria is spread person to person through the air and not through food or food products there is no risk of food contamination.

The risk of TB spreading in this case is to family members, coworkers, and other people who have prolonged contact with the employee in close quarters.

While health officials will try to determine where the woman was infected, their main focus is to identify anyone else who may have latent infection or TB disease.

Patel offered this as a way to consider TB in 2 stages:

  • The first occurs when you come into prolonged close contact with someone with TB disease. The TB bacteria enter your lungs where they can spread to other parts of the body. The bacteria can remain in your body for an extended time without developing into TB disease. The body’s immune system is fighting the bacteria during this time keeping it in check. This is considered a latent infection. At this point, you will have a positive skin test but you are not infectious to others. You will not have any symptoms. You can take medication to help prevent you from getting TB disease at this point as well.
  • The second occurs if you develop TB disease. This is when you become infectious to others. According to the CDC, 5 to 10% of people with latent infections develop TB disease. 50% of those that develop TB disease do so in the first 2 years after being infected with TB bacteria. Most with latent disease never develop TB disease. Many factors influence this with general immune health status being one of the most prominent. Those with TB disease are infectious and can spread the TB bacteria to others. You will have symptoms and will need to take medications to make yourself feel better and to prevent spread of TB bacteria.

Director of Corporate Communications for Smithfield Foods Kathleen Kirkham provided this statement to 13News Now:

Smithfield Foods is aware of one employee in Smithfield, VA who is being treated for symptoms of tuberculosis. As is standard protocol, the company is working with the health department to conduct a full investigation at the facility to ensure no other employees have been affected. This situation poses no food safety risk, and is being handled as thoroughly and efficiently as possible.