Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden is in the hot seat before a Congressional subcommittee regarding the accidental anthrax exposure of dozens of CDC lab workers that, according to Frieden, “never should have happened.” The Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations is looking into the accident that occurred after their bioterrorism lab failed to properly inactivate the bacteria before sending it to a lower and less secure lab. As many as 80 lab workers were exposed. Compounding the CDC’s problem with the incident is the fact that some of the lab workers that were potentially exposed were not medically examined for several days.
The incident occurred at Atlanta-based CDC’s main Bio-terrorism Rapid Response and Advance Technology lab in early June. An internal investigation identified five separate incidents over the last decade involving botulism, anthrax and a deadly strain of avian flu. The announcement in June revealed the problems. The congressional subcommittee hearing occurred yesterday, and Frieden vowed to improve safety procedures at the agency’s lab.
The most recent accidental exposure happened when one of the biosafety labs prepared samples of anthrax for research in lower safety level CDC labs not equipped for handling live bacteria. The samples were inadequately inactivated, an error discovered on June 13 when live bacteria was found on plates being prepared for disposal. The lab workers were not treating the samples as live bacteria. In addition to the CDC’s findings, another investigation at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that lab procedures included transferring dangerous substances in Ziploc bags, using expired disinfectants and storing live bacteria in unlocked refrigerators.
Frieden told the subcommittee that the the agency’s investigation would involve changing the safety culture in the labs, ensuring staff members feel comfortable enough to immediately report any problems. He assured lawmakers that “appropriate action” would be taken if any staff members knowingly failed to report incidents.
Anthrax is a bacteria-caused infectious disease that is naturally found in soil and commonly affects both wild and domestic animals around the world. People who come in contact with contaminated animal products or infected animals can become ill with the disease. Although it is not contagious like colds or the flu, the disease can cause severe illness in both animals and humans.
Symptoms of anthrax depend on the type of infection. The disease can be transmitted through the skin (cutaneous ), through inhalation of spores, through the gastrointestinal tract when infected meat is eaten, or (rarely) through injection. Cutaneous symptoms include itchy small blisters or bumps, or skin sores with black centers. Inhalation anthrax symptoms include fever and chills, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, cough, nausea, vomiting, headache, drenching sweats and extreme tiredness. Gastrointestinal symptoms are similar to inhalation symptoms but may also include neck gland swelling, sore throat, diarrhea, fainting and swelling of the abdomen.
All types of the disease can be treated with antibiotics. It is important to get medical care promptly to have the best chance of a full recovery.
According to the CDC, anthrax is one of the most likely agents to be used in a biological attack. Federal agencies such as the CDC have worked with health departments nationwide to prepare for a potential attack using the bacteria.
Two labs have been closed since the anthrax accident happened, and a moratorium has been placed on shipping pathogens. CDC head Frieden said the labs will be closed as long as it takes to make sure they can reopen safely and avoid recurrences of the incident.
By Beth A. Balen