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Lab Worker Infected with Bacteria Now Recovering

School of Medicine and Boston Public Health Commission examine lab, review policies

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A researcher at the BU School of Medicine became ill last weekend after being infected with the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, which he had been studying in a BioSafety Level 2 laboratory. MED spokespeople say the researcher, whose identity has not been disclosed, does not have meningitis, but is infected with a bacterium that can cause the disease. Thomas Moore, Medical Campus associate provost, says the researcher is responding well to antibiotics and is expected to make a full recovery.

The School of Medicine reports that the following actions have been taken:

  • The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) was notified in a timely fashion.
  • All laboratory personnel who worked with the researcher have been examined and given antibiotics.
  • Others on the Medical Campus who may have had contact with the researcher have been notified and directed to seek treatment if they develop symptoms.
  • The laboratory has been decontaminated, with all activities and procedures reviewed.
  • The BPHC has been asked to inspect the laboratory and review all procedures; an initial independent inspection by BPHC took place yesterday afternoon, October 29.

Moore says the researcher began feeling ill over the weekend, saw a physician on Sunday, and tested negative for influenza. Further tests revealed a bloodstream infection consistent with the type of bacteria being studied at the laboratory. It remains unclear how the bacterium entered the researcher’s body, but spokespeople say the most common means of human infection is inhalation.

Neisseria meningitidis is a bacterium that can be killed with antibiotics, but for which there is no vaccine for the strain being studied. It is best known for its role in bacterial meningitis and other forms of meningococcal disease, such as meningococcemia. It exists in the nose and throat of 5 to 15 percent of normal adults and is the cause of the only form of bacterial meningitis known to spread in epidemic form.

Meningococcus is spread through saliva and other respiratory secretions exchanged when coughing, kissing, chewing on toys, and the like. Meningococcal meningitis can rapidly progress from initial general symptoms like fatigue, fever, headache, and neck stiffness to coma, and in about 10 percent of cases, death.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

7 Comments

7 Comments on Lab Worker Infected with Bacteria Now Recovering

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 5:36 am

    I wasn’t uneasy about the Level 4 BU Biolab until I read this…

    BU better release a full public report of how this researcher managed to infect themselves, or they risk a PR nightmare on the eve of their Biolab launch.

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 9:40 am

    “Chewing on toys”? Perhaps appropriate if talking about infants or dogs, but hopefully not so in the college population…

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 12:22 pm

    2:30 PM MARSH PLAZA BU

    2:30 PM
    MARSH PLAZA

    BU STUDENTS AND BOSTON COMMUNITY MARCH AGAINST THE BU BIOLAB

    Zombie attire suggested

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 12:23 pm

    A level 4 bio lab is indeed too great of a risk to take in this metropolitan area. Such infection could only have occurred if proper safety precautions were not carried out as demanded.

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 3:30 pm

    I'm sorry, but...

    In reading some of the comments regarding the Level 4 lab, I’d like to add my opinion to the discussion. If a Biolab is to be built, generally it needs to be in an area of commerce so that research and development can occur. Here’s the thing: even if the lab is out of one particular section of the city or even Boston all together, and a disaster were to strike, and even if it were to bypass the security and autoclave measures, wouldn’t the general population face a risk anyway? Particles spread via the air. Personally, I don’t feel much more threatened with it in my city than if it were a few miles away. Fort Detrick still poses a treat to Boston if something contaminates the air from their Biolab. It’s just as dangerous, but I feel personally comfortable with the safeguards.

  • Anonymous on 10.30.2009 at 4:10 pm

    The BU level four biolab is an awful idea. People make mistakes. We all know that. No matter what the safety precautions, mistakes are inevitable.

  • An educated citizen on 11.03.2009 at 1:39 am

    Neisseria meningitidis is present in 10-15% of all individuals at any one time. It is in our throats and our sinuses. It is not a Biohazard 4 agent- not even a Biohazard 3 agent. No one knows why the bug lives in our throats and sinuses without a problem 99.999999999% of the time, but on rare occasion decides to leave the throat, get into the bloodstream, go to the central nervous system and kill. It has something to do with individuals getting used to their particular strain, because when people get together from diverse places (like the first week at college), they exchange their bugs and serious infections tend to occur.

    What does this story have to do with the debate on Biohazard 4 facilities? Nothing! There are different issues involved, and we should not confuse them. In short, I oppose opening the Bio4 labs at BU, but my opposition has nothing to do with the facility being bombed, or someone getting sick and inadvertently taking Ebola home with them and killing their neighbors or any number of other Hollywood like scenarios. First, I oppose the facility being opened because BU has not convinced the community that they are safe. The community should have rights and neither the Feds nor BU seem to care about giving the community the veto power they deserve. Second, I think the biggest threat in bioterrorism is the increasing number of people who will have access to these agents and know how to manipulate them. BU will be teaching lots of people how to handle these agents, and not everyone can be trusted to be entirely sane. While we do not know who the anthrax murderer was, it is clear s/he worked in a Bio4 lab.

    In summary, while it is reasonable to ask how we can prevent future infections due to common organisms in the laboratory setting, it would be unreasonable to stop the research. The answers to the unknown questions effect us all, and we have lives that must be saved in the future. As for BL4 organisms, communities should have a say about potentially dangerous labs. Furthermore, the threat of Bio attack may increase as we increase access and training with these bugs.

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