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Mycobacterium tuberculosis at autopsy—exposure and protection: an old adversary revisited


Background: The risk of encountering tuberculosis (TB) has reduced with the decreased incidence of the disease; however, it still can be found at autopsy.

Aim: To assess the magnitude of exposure to Mycobacterium tuberculosis at autopsy in a large general hospital setting, in a country with low incidence.

Methods: Retrospective search of the autopsy records from 1991 to 2004. Patients’ records and histological slides were reviewed, and medical personnel interviewed.

Results: 15 cases of active TB were identified in the 14-year period, during which 4930 autopsies were performed (1 case per 329 autopsies); of these, 10 cases were unsuspected (67%). Five of these cases contained abundant acid-fast bacilli. Patients tended to be middle aged and males with complex clinical histories; two were HIV positive. Two patients were brought in dead to hospital, with no clinical indication of TB. Of 15 autopsy staff, 1 required chemoprophylaxis but none contracted TB.

Conclusion: The risk of unexpectedly encountering TB at autopsy continues even in a low-risk European setting. It has implications for the health of autopsy room staff, autopsy room design and ventilation, choice of protective equipment and for the public health service. Protective strategies include assessment of the risk of a case being infected, early recognition of gross lesions, use of methods for reducing the production of infected aerosols and protection against any aerosols created.

  • AFB, acid-fast bacilli
  • AFB/HPF, acid-fast bacilli per high power field
  • TB, tuberculosis
  • ZN, Ziehl-Neelsen

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