One of the world’s deadliest diseases—tuberculosis—made a rare stateside appearance Thursday. This afternoon, the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland reported that a small amount of the infectious germ was potentially released in its facilities while being transported. The incident initially prompted the evacuation of several buildings, but hospital officials now say no one is at risk of contracting the disease.
According to WBAL, the incident involved a small vial of a frozen sample of tuberculosis being dropped onto the floor and having its lid fall off. The drop occurred in the internal bridge that connects the hospital’s Cancer Research Building 1 to its Cancer Research Building 2—a non-patient area of the hospital. Soon after, a fire alarm was pulled and employees were evacuated.
“The Baltimore City Fire and Rescue unit initiated hazmat protocols and, out of an abundance of caution, both research buildings were evacuated. Public safety officials as well as infectious disease experts have now cleared the buildings, and the evacuation has been lifted,” a Johns Hopkins spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We have confirmed that there was no risk to anyone on campus. We want to thank our employees for their quick response to the situation as well as the Baltimore City Fire Department.”
Tuberculosis, usually caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is one of the deadliest infectious diseases worldwide, infecting 10 million and killing at least 1.7 million people in 2016 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the US, however, it’s steadily become a rarity. In 2016, only 9,272 TB cases were reported, the lowest toll recorded yet.
TB is spread through the air and typically attacks the lungs. It can cause a hacking cough that lasts for weeks, chest pain, and a tell-tale coughing up of blood familiar to anyone who’s watched Moulin Rouge. More often, it instead lies dormant in the body, incapable of causing disease or being spreadable. While many people with latent TB never go on to develop symptoms, though, the germ can emerge later in on life, usually when a person’s immune system is weakened. Because of its knack for picking on the immunocompromised, TB is much more dangerous and occasionally fatal for people who also have HIV.
TB can be treated through a months-long course of antibiotics, but its hardiness and poor antibiotic management on the part of doctors and patients had enabled incredibly resistant strains to start cropping up. As much as 20 percent of TB strains are multi-drug resistant (MDR), meaning they can rebuff the two frontline drugs used for treatment, rifampicin and isoniazid. Two percent are extensively drug-resistant, meaning they can resist nearly every available antibiotic in modern use. And some strains, doctors have speculated, are even totally untreatable.
Luckily, it seems, that’s a scenario we won’t have to worry about here.