More than 500 staff have been screened for tuberculosis following an outbreak of the disease at factories in the Chatteris area.
Workers from vegetable packing plant ERMS (UK) underwent a mass screening exercise to help stop the spread of infection last week in response to 17 cases of TB being diagnosed since 2012.
Staff were given x-rays and blood tests at the company’s head office in Fenton Way, after government body Public Health England (PHE) was invited to conduct the two-day programme by its managing director Ian Smith.
Mr Smith said although 15 of the 17 workers who contracted TB were from another unidentified factory in the area, his first concern was for his plant and staff.
“We had one individual diagnosed with TB in 2012 and another two to three months ago. We followed the correct protocol and notified PHE, who told me there had been a total of 17 cases of TB within the Chatteris/Peterborough corridor.”
He said his workers are either employed by ERMS (UK) or are agency workers associated with his company.
“Because we employ upwards of 400 people, sometimes 600, it was decided a collective screening would be the best proactive approach for all our staff.”
PHE carried out the screening on Thursday and Friday last week, and revealed that depending on the outcome of the exercise, a systematic screening programme for new migrants could soon be adopted.
Dr Kate King, consultant in communicable disease control at PHE’s Anglia and Essex centre, said: “Depending on what we find here could impact on how we deal with tuberculosis nationally.
“Right now a new TB strategy is out for consultation and we could have to start looking at screening new entrants.”
Tuberculosis specialists have been working with ERMS (UK) and the other factory involved since the outbreak to screen and, if necessary, treat individuals who had “prolonged close contact” with infected colleagues.
But as the disease can take a long time to develop and become infectious, the collective screening was offered to workers as a precaution.
Dr King added: “TB can take months or years to develop. It is unusual as it has a latent or dormant phase which makes it hard to pinpoint where someone was exposed to it.”
She said the screening was necessary as many workers had come from cities and countries where TB is more prevalent, and because they spend long periods of time in close proximity of each other, either travelling to work, in the work place and living together.
She said: “Taking the diagnosis out to people in harder to reach locations works better than expecting them all to go to hospital.”
She added: “I would like to stress that transmission of the infection is not related to the type of business at the factories, and there absolutely no evidence to suggest TB transmission can occur from consumption of vegetables from the factories.”
Kate Sheridan, a consultant in public health medicine for Cambridgeshire County Council, said her role over the two days was to ensure public health bodies were doing “all the right things for the people of Cambridgeshire”.
She was grateful ERMS (UK) had 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.”
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 were also briefed verbally and written to explaining the procedure of the screening and what the next steps are.