26 people test positive in tuberculosis investigation

An ongoing Las Vegas Valley tuberculosis probe shows the woman whose death launched the investigation may have contracted the disease from consuming unpasteurized milk products.

The 25-year-old woman died in July in a Southern California hospital after giving birth in Las Vegas to twins, including one who also died of TB. Local health officials say at least 26 people with whom the mother came in contact have tested positive for the disease.

Interviews with the woman’s family led investigators to believe bacteria in cheese or milk from Central or South America caused the infection, according to the Southern Nevada Health District’s chief health officer.

“We didn’t have a sample to test the product from the patient or the family,” Dr. Joseph Iser said Tuesday. Health officials aren’t sure whether the woman ate the dairy products locally or elsewhere.

The strain that killed her originates in cattle and comes from the bacteria mycobacterium bovis, Iser said. The federally funded National Center for Biotechnology Information says human infections from mycobacterium bovis are rare although difficult to track.

“The Food and Drug Administration does not allow the interstate transport of unpasteurized milk products for this and other reasons for health and safety,” Iser said.

Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a bill earlier this year that would have legalized raw milk distribution in Nevada. Raw milk products are legal in other states.

Of the 26 people carrying TB after the Health District began testing, only two showed symptoms, which means they are contagious. They were isolated, or stayed at home, and health officials ensured they took medication to combat tuberculosis, Iser said.

The other 24 people have latent cases, meaning the disease is dormant.

“They’re not contagious,” Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore said. “They’re not sick, but they’re at risk of developing an active case of TB some time later.”

Doctors also prescribe medicine to help keep those with latent cases healthy and to keep tuberculosis at bay.

In 2011, the most recent year statistics were available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada had 95 tuberculosis cases among its 2.7 million residents. That’s 3.5 cases per 100,000 people, only slightly higher than the U.S. rate of 3.4 per 100,000.

Bacteria that causes tuberculosis most often spreads from the lungs through coughing, talking or sneezing. TB generally is contracted during prolonged contact in close quarters — which could include hospitals, classrooms, homeless shelters or jails.

In an August report, the Health District said infants’ exposure to tuberculosis at a Clark County hospital, later identified as Summerlin Hospital Medical Center’s Level III neonatal intensive care unit, was minimal and that testing wouldn’t be needed.

That changed after at least one hospital staffer tested positive for TB and was contagious. On Monday, the agency began contacting parents of about 140 infants who had been in NICU care from May 11 to Aug. 8.

It will be more than a week before test results are known, Iser said.

The August Health District reports say in May the mother entered a Clark County hospital, which the agency declined to identify. The woman later moved to Summerlin Hospital where she gave birth to premature twins. From there she went for treatment in California, where she died in July.

The Health District won’t identify the mother or twins because their identity is protected by federal medical records law, Sizemore said.

However, a Review-Journal obituary says Vanessa White, 25, died July 1. A daughter preceded her in death, and she was survived by her husband and a second daughter. The daughters’ names were the same as those provided by the Clark County coroner’s office for the deceased twins.

Coroner’s office records show 21-day-old Emma White died June 1 from extreme prematurity and because her respiratory system failed, and 2-month-old Abigail White died Aug. 1 from TB.

Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Adam Kealoha Causey at or 702-383-0361. Follow on Twitter @akcausey.

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