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updated 2/24/2011 2:38:25 PM ET 2011-02-24T19:38:25

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reminding laboratory workers to be diligent about wearing protective gear, after it found that an Illinois researcher died in 2009 from exposure to plague-causing bacteria.

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The 60-year-old researcher, a university employee, had been working with a strain of the bacteria Yersinia pestis. He died of cardiac arrest shortly after going to the hospital for what appeared to be flu symptoms, the CDC said in a report released today (Feb. 24).

After determining the cause of death, health agencies and the university began a safety investigation and learned that the man had inconsistently complied with the laboratory policy to wear gloves while handling the bacterial cultures, the CDC report said.

However, experts at the CDC did not rule out that the researcher could have been infected by the bacteria elsewhere on his skin or mucous membranes, such as his mouth or nose.

Developing plague vaccine
The CDC report did not identify the man or his university. According to a report from Chicago television station WLS in 2009, he was Malcolm Casadaban, a longtime professor of molecular genetics at the University of Chicago. His family said Casadaban had been seeking to develop a plague vaccine, and was working with a weakened strain of the bacteria.

The CDC report said he had hemochromatosis, a condition in which too much iron is absorbed into body tissues from foods in the gastrointestinal tract. Because Y. pestis bacteria are naturally iron-deficient, the extra iron in the man may have fed the bacteria and caused them to become virulent, the report said.

The researcher sought care from a physician Sept. 10, 2009, six days after he had last worked in the lab. But that doctor thought the problem was a respiratory infection or the flu, and referred him to an emergency department, the report said.

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Three days later the researcher was brought by ambulance to an emergency department because of fever, cough, and worsening of his shortness of breath. He died there after suffering septic shock and cardiac arrest, the report said.

Blood tests later revealed he was infected with the bacteria. The Chicago Department of Public Health was then notified.

Before then, the last known laboratory-acquired infection with Y. pestis bacteria in the United States occurred in 1959, the CDC report said. That person, who inhaled the bacteria, did not die.

Pass it on: Lab workers should wear protective gear in the lab, especially after a researcher died in 2009 from lab exposure to a causative agent of the plague.

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