Fen factory’s workers screened for TB by Public Health England in ‘proactive’ response to outbreak

First in line for blood test at TB screening, Ian Smith, managing director of Erms. Picture: ROB MORRIS First in line for blood test at TB screening, Ian Smith, managing director of Erms. Picture: ROB MORRIS

Thursday, April 10, 2014
3:05 PM

Up to 500 workers began being x-rayed and having blood tests today at a factory in the Fens where two workers were diagnosed in the past two years with tuberculosis.

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Public Health England's screening van outside the Erms factory. Picture: ROB MORRISPublic Health England's screening van outside the Erms factory. Picture: ROB MORRIS

Ian Smith, managing director of fresh produce supplier and packer Erms UK, invited Public Health England (PHE) to undertake the tests “since my concern is for my staff and for our organisation going forward”.

Mr Smith was first in line to be tested as the two-day programme got under way at his company’s head office in Fenton Way, Chatteris.

Many of the workers are either employed by Erms UK or are agency workers associated with his company.

Although a recent announcement by health officials revealed 15 workers from another unidentified factory have contracted TB, Mr Smith insisted his concern was for his plant and his workers.

Public Health England offered screening to factory workers in Chatteris after last month's TB diagnosis. Picture: ROB MORRISPublic Health England offered screening to factory workers in Chatteris after last month's TB diagnosis. Picture: ROB MORRIS

Mr Smith said he had spent some time in recent weeks reading about “and educating myself” about TB and decided a “proactive” response was in the best interests of his staff.

“Erms has had two individuals, one in 2012 and one more recently, who found themselves with this illness,” he said. “As soon as we found out we decided to do the best for all our staff.”

Once TB had been confirmed he notified PHE (“an organisation I never knew existed until then”) and sat down with officials to decide the way forward.

Mr Smith said: “I have been hugely impressed with them – and they told me of 15 other cases within the Chatteris/Peterborough corridor.

Public Health England offered screening to factory workers in Chatteris after last month's TB diagnosis. Picture: ROB MORRISPublic Health England offered screening to factory workers in Chatteris after last month's TB diagnosis. Picture: ROB MORRIS

“Because we employ on site upwards of 400 people, sometimes 600, it was decided we should have a full screening.”

Mr Smith said he had been “a little apprehensive” about engaging with the media on the issue but felt in some instances public statements had not helped.

“If other individuals had done what I did and read up and educated themselves about the subject perhaps we may not have had the inflammatory statements in the press which only complicate things,” he said.

“Had that not have happened, we might have been by now in a better place.”

The screening

PHE officials said the screening would discover any cases of latent TB, which were not infectious, to provide treatment: one tell-tale sign is a shadow on the lung which can be an early indication of the disease.

Results of the two-day screening will, PHE assured, be made public once the results of blood tests, which can take a bit longer, are assessed.

A PHE spokesman said: “TB is not easily spread unless you have had close, prolonged contact with someone with active TB of the lungs. Early detection and treatment is key to stopping the spread of the infection.

“Although all 17 cases have been treated with antibiotics and are no longer considered to be infectious, the disease can take a long time to develop therefore as a precaution their co-workers are being offered screening.”

Posters and leaflets with general TB advice have been displayed in the affected factories and TB facts sheets have been circulated with staff payslips.

Staff have been briefed verbally and written to explaining the procedure of the screening and what the next steps are.

• The TB germ is usually spread in the air from another person who has infectious TB of the lungs and is coughing. Close, lengthy and frequent contact with people with active TB of the lungs is necessary to transmit the infection.

Mr Smith felt it was now a case of putting the early publicity behind them and getting on with working with PHE to mitigate any potential risks.

Dr Kate King, consultant in communicable disease control at PHE’s Anglia and Essex Centre, said: “The screening is taking place because staff at the factories spend long periods of time in close proximity to each other, either travelling to work or in the work place.”

Kate Sheridan, a consultant in public health medicine for the county council, said her role over the two days would be to ensure “we are doing all the right things for the people of Cambridgeshire”.

Describing what she called the “ripples in the pond” effect of TB, she said it was important to look for contacts of those diagnosed and then screen members of those families.

She was grateful that Erms UK opened its doors to a full programme of screening but agreed such an extensive two-day event was unusual for Cambridgeshire which has a low incidence rate of TB.

Mrs Sheridan said recent work in Chatteris following confirmed cases of TB had followed all health guidelines “but it has reached the point where it seemed logical to move out to a wider group and screen them. What you mustn’t do is alarm the community where we know the risk of TB remains low”.

She also said: “There is no greater risk to those people than there ever was.”

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