The number of confirmed cases in the outbreak of tuberculosis at a Leicestershire school has risen to 27. The outbreak is now the worst in the UK for many years.
Three more cases among pupils at Crown Hills Community College in the Leicester suburb of Evington were confirmed on Thursday morning. Public health officials now plan to screen friends and relatives of infected children for the disease.
They say they are dealing with a virulent form of TB. The Department of Health has launched an investigation.
Twenty cases, mostly pupils, have been diagnosed since Monday. Another 60 students strongly suspected of having been infected have been given antibiotics as a precautionary measure. Experts say the disease is now probably gaining a hold in the wider community.
People most at risk are those who have come into contact with the infected pupils. They are to undergo skin tests and chest x-rays.
School officials believe the TB problem stems from a decision to discontinue the BCG vaccinations two years ago. One of the men said "If the vaccination scheme had continued, we wouldn't be seeing what we have today." Currently, there are no plans to close the school. "Clearly, there are implications in terms of the community of the school, where we have that number of teenagers working closely together. But at the moment, the advice we are being given is that it isn't necessary."
Currently, only one of the people affected has reached the infectious stage of the disease.
Dr Philip Monk, a consultant in public health from Leicestershire Health Authority, believes "We are dealing with a very virulent form of TB.
"At this stage, I feel that we are in control of the situation in the school. The problem is that this is really indicative of probably a wider community outbreak and that will much more difficult for us to get on top of."
Dr Monk said it appeared that the disease was spreading very easily.
"It is almost becoming a bit of a race against time really."
He advised people who were worried about infection to contact the UK telephone helpline NHS Direct, or their own GP.
The first pupil from the school was diagnosed with TB last August, followed by a second case in October.
Health officials carried out skin prick tests on 700 pupils aged 11-14 after a third case was diagnosed in February.
The remaining 500 pupils at Crown Hills, aged 15 and 16, who have not already been screened, will be tested after the Easter holiday break.
There has been speculation that the disease may have been brought back from abroad by one of the pupils.
But Dr Monk said there was still no evidence to show how the disease had been introduced into the community.
Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said the outbreak of TB in Leicester mirrored the increase seen over recent years in London, which he called "the TB capital of Europe".
"There were 20% more cases than last year and three times the number of cases in the rest of Britain. "We are seeing a rise in the number of drug-resistant cases, from different strains, which of course are rather more serious."
The Department of Health said 10 days ago that a TB vaccination program for teenagers was to be resumed after being suspended for 18 months due to a vaccine shortage.