As many as 75 laboratory workers may have been unknowingly exposed to anthrax in what appears to be a major biosecurity failure by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Reuters reported on June 19. It appears that CDC employees working with the deadly bacteria at a high-level secured facility failed to take the mandatory steps necessary to inactivate the samples before distributing them to other, far less secure labs. Personnel in those labs were unknowingly handling samples of live anthrax and did not take necessary protective measures.
Anthrax is an infectious bacterial disease but is not contagious. The CDC lists four types of illness caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Cutaneous anthrax is a skin infection caused by the bacteria entering a cut or other break in the skin. Inhalation anthrax is the result of inhaling the bacteria or its spores. Likewise, gastrointestinal anthrax is caused by eating or drinking something contaminated by the germ. Lastly, and the least common, is injection anthrax which happens when contaminated drugs are injected.
The failure was discovered on June 13. Reuters states that seven scientists are known to have come into contact with the live bacteria. The CDC is offering a 60 day course of antibiotics to about 75 personnel who could have come into contact with the germ. Depending upon the type of infection, the incubation period for an illness can range from one day to several months. Thus far, none of the exposed lab workers have become ill.
According to Reuters, the CDC is investigating how the lapses could have occurred. Dr Paul Meechan, director of the environmental health and safety compliance office at the CDC, told them:
"This should not have happened," he said. For those exposed, he said, "We're taking care of it. We will not let our people be at risk."
Meechan said the CDC is conducting an internal investigation to discover how the exposure occurred and said disciplinary measures would be taken if warranted.
In the aftermath of the terror attacks on Sept.11, 2001, a number of letters were received by various prominent people in government and the media that contained anthrax spores. The FBI called its investigation of the biological attack "Amerithrax." The case was closed on Feb. 10, 2010 after the death of the primary suspect.
The toll of the anthrax attacks was five deaths and 17 illnesses. None of the dead were prominent. Two were postal employees, one was an employee at a tabloid publisher, and the remaining two were women with no connection to government or the media.
The FBI believes that the tabloid employee was exposed through an envelope addressed to his employer. The postal workers were exposed during their mail sorting duties. The deaths of the two women have never been fully explained but are alleged to be the result of exposure to anthrax spores on their mail which had passed through postal facilities that handled the original anthrax-laden letters.