Lab-Acquired Infection – Don't Let It Happen to You
by Christopher Aston
In 2010 and 2011 the CDC investigated a Salmonella typhimurium outbreak that affected 109 people in 38 states, and resulted in 13 hospitalizations and one death. The investigation found that the outbreak originated from lab-acquired infections (LAIs) involving a common, commercially available strain employed in clinical and teaching microbiology laboratories. Some who became ill were not laboratory workers but rather family members of laboratory workers who were not even infected themselves. It is likely that laboratory workers involved in transmission inadvertently carried the bacteria home on personal belongings such as clothes, bags, cell phones and other portable electronic devices. Staff at laboratories that were associated with illness were found to possess less knowledge of biosafety practices. CDC’s advice following the investigation was:
- Do not allow lab coats to leave the laboratory, except for laundering, which must never be done at home.
- Do not allow food, drinks or personal items like backpacks, keys, cell phones and other portable electronic devices to be used while working in the laboratory or placed on laboratory work surfaces.
- Use dedicated writing utensils, paper, and other supplies at each laboratory station. These items should not be allowed to leave the laboratory.
- Always wash hands immediately after removing gloves and before leaving the laboratory.
Last May, a young laboratory assistant in San Francisco died from an apparent laboratory-acquired meningococcal infection. Sadly, had the individual sought medical attention sooner, they might have survived. Neisseria meningitidis outbreaks are rare in the US but carry a high fatality rate, with laboratory-acquired cases having a higher fatality rate than cases in the general population due to the higher inoculum concentration resulting from laboratory exposures versus traditional transmission. Meningitis can be prevented with antibiotics if caught before the bacteria become established and overt symptoms begin to appear. Ensuring your safety when working with infectious agents requires a few basic steps:
- follow documented protocols,
- avoid the use of sharps whenever possible,
- be aware of the respective signs and symptoms of infection and
- seek immediate medical attention if these become evident.
If available, staff should be vaccinated against the agent or sign a declination form as part of a medical surveillance plan. All suspected LAIs should be reported to EH&S as soon as possible after consultation with a healthcare provider. Please note, additional precautions and safety procedures may be required based on the specific agent in use or the nature of the manipulations in your protocol; consult the EH&S Biosafety Team with questions or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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