CDC: Misuse of garments may have led to release of bacteria at Tulane lab

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NEW ORLEANS — The misuse of outer protective garments may have led to the exposure of a potentially deadly strain of bacteria at the Tulane National Primate Research Center near New Orleans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

An employee at the center has tested positive for the bacterium, which is kept at the facility. The employee is not sick, and Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman, said the bacteria probably aren’t a threat to the general population.

Inspectors from the CDC and the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the misuse of outer garments “could have led to the bacteria clinging to inner garments and getting carried out of the select agent lab where research was being conducted with the bacteria on mice,” a news release said.

“Additionally, CDC and APHIS inspectors determined that Tulane primate center staff frequently entered the select agent lab without appropriate protective clothing, which would increase the risk of bringing the bacteria out of the lab or becoming infected themselves.”

The bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, was being tested on mice in a biosafety level 3 lab at the Covington, Louisiana campus. It can cause can cause melioidosis, also known as Whitmore’s disease.

All research with the agent at the facility was suspended on February 11 and will remain suspended until it can be shown that there are no more risks and that proper procedures are being followed, the CDC said.

The CDC says the primate facility can resume that research when Tulane officials show inspectors that:

• Entity-wide procedures exist to ensure animals accidentally exposed in the future are managed appropriately;

• All personal protective equipment procedures are thoroughly reviewed and revised appropriately to lessen the risk of future breaches;

• All Tulane primate center personnel are trained on any new or revised protective clothing procedures; and

• Improved entry and exit procedures to the outside enclosures housing non-human primates are in place to stop any further transmission among the animals.”

The CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture say they have completed their investigation, which began in November when two monkeys were diagnosed with Whitmore’s disease. Six others had antibodies indicating exposure to the bacterium.

According to the CDC, “the bacteria causing melioidosis are found in contaminated water and soil. It is spread to humans and animals through direct contact with the contaminated source.” It is not transmitted between humans or animals, “and the risk of acquiring melioidosis is low,” the CDC said.

Melioidosis “is predominately a disease of tropical climates, especially in Southeast Asia and northern Australia where it is widespread,” according to the CDC website.

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