- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Health officials began testing employees at the Mercedes-Benz car factory in Alabama for tuberculosis on Friday after a factory worker tested positive with an active case of the disease.

Pam Barrett, director of the tuberculosis control office of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said about 50 workers would be screened initially. The number could increase as an investigation continues, she said.

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease that can be fatal if left untreated. Active cases are cured with a combination of medicines taken over a six-month period, Barrett said, and infections are similarly treated with pills.

The disease poses no threat to someone who purchases a Mercedes-Benz automobile produced at the factory even if the person with the illness sneezed or coughed inside the passenger area, Barrett said.

“The TB germ is only spread through the air. You would have to be breathing the same air as a person for an extended period,” she said. “It can’t be spread through touching something.”

Tuberculosis can be a serious problem inside an enclosed area like a prison where people live, Barrett said, but the threat isn’t nearly as severe in a wide-open workspace like a car factory.

“It really isn’t a high-risk area,” she said.

Neither the company nor health officials would say where the infected person was assigned.

“We’re trying our best for people not to be able to identify the worker,” Barrett said.

The employee worked inside the factory but isn’t currently on the job, she said.

In a statement, Mercedes said it was notifying all employees about the discovery and working with health officials as they screen people who might have been exposed.

The health agency said tests would be administered to anyone who might have spent an extended amount of time near the person who is infected. Results will not be available before next week, Barrett said.

The factory, located west of Birmingham in the Tuscaloosa County town of Face, has about 3,400 employees.