The family of a 25-year-old medical researcher who died in April 2012 from a rare form of meningitis (Neisseria meningitis) for which he was working on a vaccine as an employee of the Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the San Francisco Veterans Memorial Hospital lab run by UC San Francisco, has filed a federal lawsuit seeking $10 million from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and $10 million from UC regents. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants showed conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others.
The particular strain of the bacteria that the researcher was studying – Serotype B – was the strain found in his body. The researcher had died 17 hours after he had been handling the bacteria in the lab. He began feeling ill about two hours after leaving the lab, complaining of a headache, fever, and chills. When he woke the next morning, he had a rash all over his body and had his friends drive him to the VA hospital. On the way to the hospital, he became unconscious and had no pulse when he arrived at the hospital. He was pronounced dead of multiple organ failure at around 2p.m. that day. He apparently died from septicemia (an inflammation of the bloodstream that causes bleeding into the skin and organs).
Neisseria meningitis from the particular strain that killed the researcher is uncommon in the United States – about 75 people died from this strain in 2010 and only approximately 1,000 cases are reported in the United States each year.
In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a notice “of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions” at the lab. One of the serious violations cited was that the researcher was not required to work in an enclosed ventilated work space that would potentially have contained the strain and prevented him from contracting the bacteria. Among the other violations was that the lab workers were not properly trained about the signs and symptoms of illnesses as a result of employee exposure to a viable bacteria culture and the lab workers were not provided with available vaccines for workers potentially exposed to bacteria.
OHSA’s regional administrator stated in February 2013 that the researcher died because “… the VA failed to supervise and protect these workers adequately. Research hospitals and medical centers have the responsibility as employers to protect workers from exposure to recognized on-the-job hazards such as this.” Officials from the VA stated that the VA responded to the safety violations after the April 2012 incident by immediately closing the laboratory, instituting a strengthened vaccine policy, extending requirements to use the ventilated safety cabinets, and by training employees on signs and symptoms of meningitis.
A vaccine for the meningitis strain that killed the 25-year-old researcher should be available later this year in Europe and sometime thereafter in the United States.
Researchers acquiring infections due to exposure in labs is very rare: 16 cases of probable laboratory-acquired meningitis (including 8 cases that were fatal) occurred worldwide between 1985 and 2001.
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