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VA Laboratory Policies Under Scrutiny After Death of Vaccine Researcher
Laboratory Transmission Rare
A 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed only 16 cases of laboratory-transmitted meningitis worldwide during the previous 15 years.
One case was a 35-year-old Alabama microbiologist who died only a few days after working with blood and spinal fluid cultures from a patient with Neisseria meningitis. At an emergency room, the microbiologist was given a prescription for antibiotics but returned the next day after the symptoms worsened and died in the hospital three hours later.
Another victim was a 52-year-old Michigan microbiologist in the state public health laboratory who also died after working with several Neisseria meningitis samples. After complaining of sore throat, vomiting, headache, fever and a rash on both legs, the microbiologist went to an emergency room on Christmas Day, 2000, and died later that day.
“All 16 cases occurred among workers in the microbiology section of the laboratory; no cases were reported among workers in hematology, chemistry or pathology,” the CDC noted.
There are about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis in the U.S. each year, causing 500 deaths, according to researchers at the CDC.
VA research laboratories comply with all state and federal safety regulations, said Birdsall. In addition, each VA medical facility has its own safety committee, she said.
“There are a lot of safeguard measures in place,” she said.
No VA researchers are on the Laboratory Safety Institute’s memorial wall honoring lab workers who have died in accidents, Birdsall said. That includes researchers who died from all types of accidents, including research explosions and dates back to 1904.
When asked if the San Francisco researcher’s recent death might prompt changes in lab safety procedures, Birdsall said it would depend on the outcome of the state and federal investigations.
“I don’t think we’ll know until we know what [investigators] think happened,” she said, pointing out that, while preliminary evidence indicates the San Francisco researcher died of the same form of meningitis that he was working with in the laboratory, “there are more definitive tests that can establish that.”
As a precaution, coworkers of the stricken researcher were immediately given antibiotics, Birdsall said.
In a laboratory setting, meningitis bacteria can become airborne when it being transferred from one test tube to another or when it is broken down for study, Birdsall explained. Safety measures to prevent exposure to lab researchers include masks, gloves and ventilation.
California OSHA must complete its investigation within six months, according to Melton, who said investigators will examine whether adequate safety precautions were used in the lab to prevent exposure to the bacteria.
“This investigation is going to take a while,” he said.
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