Parents of students from the Southport High School in Indianapolis received automated phone messages Wednesday informing them that some students and staff at the school have been exposed to tuberculosis through another student.

Principal Barbara Brouwer sent out the messages notifying parents, adding that those who were exposed will be contacted by the school directly. Those who have been exposed may then go to the clinic school officials have organized on April 28 to be tested for free. Students and staff who were not directly exposed but still wish to get themselves checked out may go to Marion County Public Health Department.

Health officials, however, want parents, students and everyone in the school to know that TB cannot be spread by an infected person unless the individual is exhibiting symptoms, like coughs lasting more than two weeks, night sweats, fevers, chills, unexpected weight loss, decreased appetite, chest pains and coughing up blood.

Additionally, the disease cannot be spread simply by touching surfaces an infected person has touched, shaking hands or sharing food or clothing. Instead, TB spreads through the air. When a person with active TB sneezes, coughs, sings, laughs or speaks, tiny particles are released in the air that contain the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. An infection occurs when a person inhales these tiny particles.

The TB bacteria typically target the lungs but can attack any part of the body, like the brain, spine and kidneys. While letting TB go untreated can be fatal, not all who are infected by TB actually become sick. This is why TB is categorized as either TB disease or latent TB infection.

TB as a disease persists when the immune system is unable to stop the bacteria from growing. A latent TB infection, on the other hand, is possible because the body is able to fight off the bacteria and prevent it from fully taking hold. However, keep in mind that it is possible for a latent TB infection to develop into TB disease when the body's ability to defend against the bacteria is reduced.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved 10 drugs for treating TB, with isoniazid, rifampin, ethambutol and pyrazinamide forming the core of treatment regimens. Treating TB can take anywhere from six to nine months. The initial phase lasts two months, but how long the rest of the treatment takes depends on the treatment option chosen for the continuation phase. Whatever treatment option is chosen, all phases must be completed as instructed to ensure the disease is completely eradicated.

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