Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Biological Research Laboratories Can Cause Dangerous and Lethal Human Infections

Researchers must be wary of infections

By Blythe Bernhard / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The death of a scientist who caught the plague in a laboratory in 2009 shook the disease research community. It was the first such death of a researcher, and 50 years since the last known lab-acquired case of plague.

For the more than 500,000 people who work in laboratories in the United States, occupational health hazards can include infectious diseases spread by live viruses and bacteria.

There’s no state or national tracking system for lab-acquired infections, but one estimate says three of every 1,000 lab workers become infected each year. The most common infections include hepatitis, typhoid fever and tuberculosis, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“We’ve always told people they need to follow safety (precautions) even if what they think they’re working with is benign,” said Susan Cook, a safety officer at Washington University, where scientists work with cultures, including flu, pneumonia, salmonella and E. coli. “You don’t necessarily know what the person next to you is working with all the time.”

Basic lab protection includes gloves, coats and eye goggles. Biological safety cabinets keep fumes away from researchers if they need to mix agents.

Still, infections occur when workers breathe in or touch spores.

A student worker at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign somehow contracted cowpox last year in a campus lab that stores the virus. The skin virus presented as an infected cut, according to university officials, and the student recovered.

While all lab workers are offered precautionary vaccines, the student had declined, a university spokeswoman said.

In 2008, a lab worker at a Virginia university contracted vaccinia, the live virus contained in smallpox vaccine. The man in his 20s worked in a cancer research lab with mice that were infected with vaccinia virus. He recovered fully from an infection in his eye and ear.

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