Hundreds of U.S. bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy

Allison Young of USA Today reports that more than 1,100 laboratory incidents involving bacteria, viruses and toxins that pose significant or bioterror risks to people and agriculture were reported to federal regulators during 2008 through 2012, government reports obtained by USA TODAY show.

oops.britneyMore than half these incidents were serious enough that lab workers received medical evaluations or treatment, according to the reports. In five incidents, investigations confirmed that laboratory workers had been infected or sickened; all recovered.

In two other incidents, animals were inadvertently infected with contagious diseases that would have posed significant threats to livestock industries if they had spread. One case involved the infection of two animals with hog cholera, a dangerous virus eradicated from the USA in 1978. In another incident, a cow in a disease-free herd next to a research facility studying the bacteria that cause brucellosis, became infected due to practices that violated federal regulations, resulting in regulators suspending the research and ordering a $425,000 fine, records show.

But the names of the labs that had mishaps or made mistakes, as well as most information about all of the incidents, must be kept secret because of federal bioterrorism laws, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the labs and co-authored the annual lab incident reports with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“More than 200 incidents of loss or release of bioweapons agents from U.S. laboratories are reported each year. This works out to more than four per week,” said Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert at Rutgers university in New Jersey, who testified before Congress last month at a hearing about CDC’s lab mistakes.

The only thing unusual about the CDC’s recent anthrax and bird flu lab incidents, Ebright said, is that the public found out about them. “The 2014 CDC anthrax event became known to the public only because the number of persons requiring medical evaluation was too high to conceal,” he said.

CDC officials were unavailable for interviews and officials with the select agent program declined to provide additional information. The USDA said in a statement Friday that “all of the information is protected under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.”

Such secrecy is a barrier to improving lab safety, said Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore, an independent think tank that studies policy issues relating to biosecurity issues, epidemics and disasters.

doublesecretprobation“We need to move to something more like what they do in aviation, where you have no-fault reporting but the events are described so you get a better sense of what actually happened and how the system can be fixed,” said Gronvall, an immunologist by training and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Gronvall notes that even with redundant systems in high-security labs, there have been lab incidents resulting in the spread of disease to people and animals outside the labs.

“People understand that mistakes will happen,” Gronvall said. “But you want it to be captured, you want it to be learned from, you want there to be a record of how it was dealt with. That’s something I think should happen with biosafety.”

‘The dirty hand in the latex glove’ Handwashing issues in hospitals

“Gloves give a false sense of security” is standard food safety banter when talking about the use of gloves in food service.

My version is, “It doesn’t matter whether someone making a sandwich or salad is wearing gloves or not if they pick their nose, explore their ear or scratch their butt and then continue to prepare food.”

A paper published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology "The Dirty Hand in the Latex Glove: A Study of Hand-Hygiene Compliance When Gloves Are Worn," takes up a similar issue in hospitals. The study was summarized by The Atlantic.

Problem: Gloves reduce germ transmission in situations where contact with body fluids is expected. Their use, however, is not a substitute for handwashing before and after patient contact, since germs can still get through latex and hands can be contaminated by "back spray" when gloves are removed.

Methodology: Researchers in the U.K. led by Sheldon Stoneof the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust observed glove use and hand-hygiene practices involving 7,578 patient contacts in 56 intensive care units in 15 hospitals.

Results: Gloves were used in just over a quarter of the patient contacts and were absent in 141 of 669 high-risk contacts. Use of gloves was strongly associated with poor hand hygiene as well. While only half of those who didn’t wear gloves washed their hands before and after coming into contact with a patient, the rate for those who wore gloves was even lower at just 41.4 percent.

Conclusion: Hand hygiene is a serious problem in hospitals. Healthcare workers who wear gloves may be relying too much on their ability to prevent transmission, as they clean their hands before and after patient contact much less frequently.

Implication: This failure of basic hand hygiene could be contributing to the spread of infection, the researchers say in a statement. Hand-hygiene campaigns should consider placing greater emphasis on the World Health Organization’s indications for glove use.

Mother of E. coli victim prepares for inquest in Wales

Sharon Mills has waited over five years to tell a coroner how her 5-year-old son spent his final days dying from E. coli O157.

The long-awaited inquest into the death of E.coli victim Mason Jones is due to begin in front of Gwent coroner David Bowen, in Newport.

Wales Online reports Mason died on October 4, 2005, at Bristol Children’s Hospital, around two weeks after contracting the food poisoning bug. He was one of 158 victims, most of them children, struck down by the O157 strain.

The start of the inquest has been delayed to allow the completion of the South Wales Police investigation into Mason’s death, the prosecution of Bridgend butcher William Tudor under food hygiene laws and to allow E.coli expert Professor Hugh Pennington to conduct a public inquiry.

His report, which laid the blame for the outbreak firmly on the shoulders of Tudor but also identified serious failings in local authority inspection and procurement procedures, will form part of the evidence that Mr Bowen will consider before giving his verdict.

Ms. Mills, 36, from Deri, near Bargoed, said,

“This is what we have been waiting for for five years. I just hope that justice prevails. … The feeling that I need to get justice has taken over my life over the last five years and the end is near now and I am scared that we are not going to get the outcome that Mason deserves. I’m just hoping that I find the strength from somewhere to get through the next couple of days. I have experienced the worst thing I can ever experience, but having to deal with the inquest comes second. The hurt never goes away when you lose a child. You never get over it – you learn to live alongside it.”

Florida food safety inspections shift again

Tampa Bay Online reports that changes in state laws on food safety inspections has led to mass confusion about jurisdiction, so much that health departments are now regaining powers to conduct kitchen hygiene inspections at child care facilities, at least for an interim period.

Marc Yacht, the retired former director of the Pasco County Health Department said he remains concerned about the "most vulnerable population" at nursing homes not having a regular food and hygiene inspection program.

Unintended consequences seem to have plagued the new law from the start, Yacht and other critics say.

Most Department of Children and Family inspectors have bachelor’s degrees in social sciences, but they lack the training and experience for food inspections. The Department of Health inspectors have degrees in science or health and training in food safety.

Careful with that chicken, Eugene; experts conclude chicken primary source of campylobacter in Europe

The European Food Safety Authority has concluded that the handling, preparation and consumption of broiler meat may directly account for 20 to 30 per cent of human cases of campylobacteriosis in the European Union.

In Europe, campylobacteriosis is the most common infectious disease transmissible from animals to humans through food and the opinion confirms previous findings that poultry meat appears to be a major, if not the largest,  source of human infection. TheBIOHAZ Panel estimates that the number of actual cases of human campylobacteriosis is likely to be much higher than officially reported.

BIOHAZ Panel Chair, Professor Dan Collins said:

“We need to interpret our conclusions with care since data on sources of Campylobacter are scarce for the majority of Member States and in some cases they are unavailable.”