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CDC lab workers may have been exposed to anthrax

Updated: Jun 20, 2014 09:52 AM
© James Gathany / CDC / Laura R. Zambuto © James Gathany / CDC / Laura R. Zambuto
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THURSDAY, June 19, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- As many as 75 staffers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have been exposed to anthrax because safety procedures weren't followed properly, the agency said Thursday.

The CDC said staffers in four of its laboratories were being monitored or provided antibiotics "out of an abundance of caution," but the "risk of infection is very low."

"Based on the review to date, CDC believes that other CDC staff, family members, and the general public are not at risk of exposure and do not need to take any protective action," the agency said in a news release.

Early reports indicated that one of the CDC's higher level biosafety labs in Atlanta was preparing the anthrax samples for research in lower level labs. The higher level lab did not adequately inactivate the samples before sending them to the other labs, which aren't equipped to handle live anthrax samples. Workers at the lower level labs, believing the samples were inactivated, weren't wearing proper protective equipment while handling them, the agency said.

The potential exposures were discovered last Friday, June 13, the CDC said, when the original bacterial plates were gathered for disposal and B. anthracis colonies (live bacteria) were found on the plates. The workers handling the plates were immediately notified.

Sometime between June 6 and June 13, procedures used in two of the three lower-level labs may have enabled the samples to become airborne. Environmental testing was done, the labs and hallways were decontaminated and the labs will reopen when they're declared safe, the CDC said.

The CDC said an internal review continues to determine why the safety procedures weren't followed at the higher-level lab. "Given that CDC expert protocols were not followed, disciplinary action(s) will be taken as necessary," the news release said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, anthrax is actually a disease caused by a germ -- bacillus anthracis -- that lives in soil. Anthrax is rare, though potentially fatal, and typically affects animals, like cattle, sheep, and goats, more often than people. People can get anthrax from contact with infected animals, wood, meat or hides.

It can cause three forms of disease in people:

  • Cutaneous, which affects the skin. People with cuts or open sores can get it if they touch the bacteria.
  • Inhalation, which affects the lungs. People can get this from breathing in spores of the bacteria.
  • Gastrointestinal, which affects the digestive system. People can get it by eating infected meat.

Antibiotics can cure anthrax if it's diagnosed early. But many people don't know they have anthrax until it's too late for treatment. A vaccine to prevent anthrax is available for people in the military and others at high risk, according to the NIH.

Anthrax made headlines in 2001 during the bioterror attacks. In the attacks, someone purposely spread anthrax through the U.S. mail system, killing five people and sickening 22.

More information

To learn more about anthrax, visit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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