McLennan County justices of the peace who identified the dead of Mount Carmel are being asked to take a tuberculosis test.
Health officials asked for the testing as a precaution after three law enforcement officers at the site tested positive for TB, a highly communicable disease primarily affecting the lungs.
But Dr. Scott Lea, a consultant for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, said no link has been made between the positive TB tests and Mount Carmel, which burned to the ground April 19.
The fire killed Branch Davidian leader Vernon Howell and almost 80 followers.
“The testing is being done just because of the unknown,” Lea said. “We want to protect everyone. I think it would be more likely that someone on the law enforcement side had TB and spread it. It was winter, and they were all in controlled quarters. That’s more likely than that they got it from Davidians.”
The area around the compound is still quarantined by the Texas Department of Health — which cited garbage, excrement and lead contamination from the massive arsenal kept by the Branch Davidians.
Justice of the Peace David Pareya of West said he wasn’t too thrilled when a Department of Public Safety official recommended he take a TB test.
“It more or less ruined my week,” Pareya said. “I’m being positive. I think everything will be OK. With the stench out there, I did think about the possibility of contagious disease. But I’ve been to so many places where there has been death and decomposing bodies. When you have a job to do, you don’t really think too much about it.”
One of the law enforcement officers testing positive for TB is a Texas Ranger, according to Lea.
Testing positive for TB doesn’t mean a person has the disease.
“It just means you’ve been exposed,” Lea said. “There is then a 15 percent chance over the next five years that you will come up with pulmonary tuberculosis. The value of doing a skin test is that you can tell if a person has been exposed. Then you can intervene with preventative medicine so they don’t get sick.”
If you randomly tested the public, one in 10 people would test positive for TB, according to health officials.
Law enforcement officers would probably test even higher, Lea said.
“They deal with prisoners, and prisoners have a high rate of TB, and they deal with drug addicts, who have a high rate of TB,” he said. “It’s not surprising that we found some people who had a positive skin test.”
Chief Deputy Dan Weyenberg said the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department is offering TB testing to its employees.
Weyenberg said he takes TB tests twice a year because of his regular contact with jail inmates.
Citing the standard water and excrement, Lea said he was more worried that someone would contract Hepatitis A, a severe inflammation of the liver, than TB from being at Mount Carmel.
TB was less of a concern because of how it is usually transmitted, he said.
“You usually have to be around someone actively coughing it into the environment,” Lea said. “When bodies are burned, they are essentially sterilized. If there were a flurry of positive skin tests I’d be more worried. Right now, I don’t see how the compound episode led to TB exposure.”