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Published: Monday, 7/9/2007

Toledoans not told of pathogen exposures

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

In 2004, a laboratory worker at what was then the Medical College of Ohio contracted Valley Fever, a respiratory infection that probably resulted from his work with a dangerous pathogen.

A year later, a test-tube break in the same laboratory, which was looking for a vaccine against Valley Fever, again prompted MCO officials to notify the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one was sickened by that accident.

This week, a Texas watchdog group, The Sunshine Project, included the incidents in a list of biological accidents of which the public was never notified.

The list was prompted by revelations that Texas A&M University failed to notify the CDC about three research-related Brucella cases and waited a year to report a case of Q fever.

A CDC investigation of Texas A&M could cost the university its right to work with such pathogens.

But a CDC spokesman said both incidents at the present University of Toledo Medical School were promptly reported and properly addressed.

Sunshine Project representative Edward Hammond said in an e-mail, "They [MCO/UT] did hand over a lot more information, were more open than most institutions."

Dr. Douglas Wilkerson, UT vice president for research administration, said the medical school never went beyond CDC notification because the public was not at risk.

"I don't think we saw any need to inform or alarm people that weren't directly involved in the incident,'' Dr. Wilkerson said. "We don't want to create a panic if there's no danger."

The incidents involved a fungus called Coccidioides immitis, which sickens some 150,000 people in the southwestern United States every year, said John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona.

In the 2004 case, it was never determined whether the infected lab worker contracted Valley Fever in the Toledo lab, or in a lab he had worked in earlier.

Coccidioides does not spread from person to person, so his infection presented no further risk.

People who work with Coccidioides must comply with strict safety protocols in what's known as a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory. BSL 3 labs have special air-handling systems that prevent laboratory air from circulating in the rest of the building. Workers in these laboratories must wear protective suits, gloves, and masks.

In the second incident at UT, a student who worked with Valley Fever fungus opened a centrifuge and discovered one of the test tubes inside had cracked.

Both incidents occurred in the laboratory of Gary Cole, who worked at MCO from 1995 to 2005, when he moved to the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Mr. Cole is looking for a vaccine against Valley Fever and is testing candidate vaccines in mice.

Dr. Galgiani, who is also testing one of Mr. Cole's vaccines in his laboratory, said it only takes a single spore of the Valley Fever fungus to cause the disease.

"It's endemic to our part of the country,'' the Tucson researcher said. Two-thirds of the cases nationwide occur in Arizona. The other third come from California, largely in the San Joaquin Valley that gives the virus its name.

About a third of the people infected with the fungus have symptoms to prompt medical treatment.

For a small number, about 25 to 30 a year in Arizona, Valley Fever is lethal.

The fungus was part of a biowarfare agent in the 1950s in Russia, he said.

"Since then there's been a lack of interest in it as a bioweapon because it requires wind and things you can't control very well to spread," he said.

Still, Coccidioides immitis would bear little threat to people in Toledo if it escaped from a laboratory, Mr Galgiani said.

"There's lots of evidence to suggest the organism doesn't like Toledo," he said.

"There are great examples of it being blown by the wind to northern California, where it was quenched after initial exposures. It doesn't take up residence in the soils," he said.

"It's never established itself outside of this area. For the population of Toledo, I would say there's very little risk."

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.



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