A South Bay hospital says hundreds of newborn babies might have been exposed to tuberculosis after an employee who worked in the infant care center tested positive.
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center employees spent much of the day Friday calling and sending out hundreds of letters to patients, advising them they may have been exposed to TB.
Hospital officials are also saying, as a precaution, babies who were in the hospital's Mother & Infant Care Center between mid-August and mid-November of this year will need antibiotics.
Dr. Stephen Harris told NBC Bay Area an employee who worked in the infant care unit tested positive for the bacteria that attacks the lungs.
"She was not even coughing," Harris said. "It was unlikely she was highly contagious."
Eight-hundred people, including 350 newborns, might have been exposed to the employee, who is now on leave, according to the hospital.
Adults can be tested for TB, but babies can't.
"With babies, we need to be more cautious because the disease is more serious," Harris said.
To prevent infection, Harris is recommending all 350 newborns be treated with antibiotics for the next six months, as a precaution.
"Because the babies have an immature immune system, the bacteria can get into their bloodstream. From the bloodstream it can go everywhere in the body, including the brain," Harris said.
At this point, no positive TB tests have been linked to the employee, and hospital staff says they are taking every precaution.
"We've decided to do chest x-rays and treatment for these babies to protect them from potentially getting tuberculosis," Harris said.
It's not clear why the employee was allowed to work with TB. The hospital requires all employees get tested. According to the hospital, the infected employee was tested in September and the results came back negative.
Anyone who thinks they were exposed should contact the hospital at (408) 885-3444 to set up an appointment. Harris said hospital staff will be talking with each parent about the need to treat their infant with the daily antibiotic isoniazid for six to nine months to prevent infection.
"That's a big deal," Harris said. "That is not something to be taken lightly."
The antibiotic kills tuberculosis and can prevent the infant from becoming ill, hospital officials said. Harris said isoniazid is effective at preventing tuberculosis from setting up shop in both infants and adults.
Only active tuberculosis can be spread, Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said. Inactive or latent tuberculosis can reside in the body for a period of time and then become active again, health officials said.
In 2013, the county health department reported the number of tuberculosis cases in Santa Clara County was among the most in the country.
Bay City News contributed information to this report.