June 19, 2014 — -- At least 75 workers at the Atlanta headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control may have been exposed to anthrax, a deadly infectious disease, the agency said today.
“We are devastated. It is unacceptable. This is what we do best,” Paul Mecham of CDC’s Environment Health and Safety Compliance Office told ABC News. “Our people are our number one resource. We are going to find out what went wrong and we are going to fix it.”
The workers are being monitored and offered antibiotics and vaccination, CDC officials said. So far none have shown signs of illness, but symptoms can take two months to appear, according to the agency,
Left untreated, the inhaled form of anthrax can be deadly in 85 percent of cases, according to the CDC. Even with treatment the fatality rate is as high as 45 percent.
The risk of infection among the 75 workers is thought to be very low and the general public is not at risk, CDC officials said.
Initial reports from the CDC stated that staff members were exposed to the anthrax-causing bacterium Bacillus anthracis after the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory failed to fully inactivate samples of the live bacteria. The samples were moved to another laboratory where workers were not wearing full protective gear since they believed the samples posed no risk.
Between June 6 and June 13, the infectious samples were used for experiments in two different CDC labs that were unequipped to handle the dangerous bacterium, CDC said. At one point, the spores may have even been aerosolized and dispersed into the air, according to the agency.
The breach was not discovered until the samples of the bacterium were gathered to be destroyed and the live bacteria were discovered, CDC said.
The CDC is still investigating the exposure and has decontaminated lab and hallway areas that were exposed, according to a statement.
Anthrax spores can be breathed in or ingested through contaminated food or water, according to the CDC. The bacterium can also invade the skin through cuts or scrapes.
Anthrax cannot be passed from person to person, according to the CDC.