The death of a 25-year-old researcher studying a sinister strain of bacteria has highlighted the hazards of infectious disease research.
The man, whose name has not been released, died Saturday at the San Francisco VA Medical Center from a meningococcal infection he may have acquired while working at the hospital the day before.
Headache, fever and chills set in just two hours after the researcher left the lab where he was helping to develop a vaccine for Neisseria meningitidis, a bug that causes life-threatening blood infections and meningitis.
"The early symptoms of this infection are very non-specific," said Dr. Harry Lampiris, chief of infectious diseases at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "In the first few hours, people don't realize how sick they really are."
The next morning, the researcher woke up with a rash, and asked friends to drive him to the hospital, Lampiris said. But he lost consciousness in the car, and arrived without a pulse. Despite repeated attempts to resuscitate him, he died that afternoon.
This is not the first time a researcher working with meningococcal disease has become infected and died. A 2005 study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology describes 16 cases between 1985 and 2001, eight of which were fatal. In 15 cases, the researchers were working without the proper respiratory protection.
"It looks like he took all the appropriate precautions," said Limpiris, describing the ventilated workspace in the lab that sucks air up away from the person handling the bacteria. "But this is under investigation by Cal-OSHA [California Occupational Health and Safety Association]."
Calls to Cal-OSHA were not immediately returned.
Neisseria meningitidis is transmitted person-to-person through respiratory droplets. The San Francisco Department of Public Health identified 10 people who had close contact with the researcher, including his girlfriend and his roommates, and treated them prophylactically with antibiotics, according to department spokeswoman Eileen Shields.
The VA Hospital treated an additional 60 people, including the researcher's coworkers and medical staff involved in his treatment, according to Lampiris.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is not directly involved in the investigation, is consulting with local health officials.
"It's exceedingly rare for someone to acquire a fatal infection due to the work they perform in the lab," said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. "When something like this happens, it's a tragedy. We want to learn as much as we can about what happened as a way to prevent it from happening again in the future."
Limpiris said the researcher was "well-trained, hard-working and very talented."
"Our sympathies go out to his family and his coworkers," he said.
Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said procedures and protocols can never eliminate the hazards of working with infectious diseases.
"There are very elaborate, very thoughtfully prepared safety protocols in place, but there's always a risk," he said, a risk researchers carefully weigh against the benefits of vaccines and treatments that save millions of lives.
"This work is essential in order to develop preventive measures," he said. "Let's not forget this is a dangerous strain of this bacteria for which we do not have a vaccine."