Infectious Disease Researcher Dies From Rare Bacteria

By Amir Khan on May 4, 2012 11:27 AM EDT

Meningitis
A child recovers from meningitis in a New Delhi hospital (Photo: Reuters)

Richard Din, a 25-year-old infectious disease researcher from San Francisco, died on Saturday of a meningococcal infection he may have contracted during the course of his work. While experts say he took all necessary precautions, his death serves as an unfortunate reminder of the dangers of infectious disease research.

Din was working with samples of Neisseria meningitides, also known as meningococcus, when he became ill. Meningococcus is the bacteria responsible for meningitis, a deadly inflammation of the membranes of the brain and spinal cord, and septicemia, a bloodstream inflammation that causes bleeding into the organs and skin.

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Meningococcus is transmitted from person to person through close contact. The disease affects 1,000 people every year, but a vaccine can protect against many strains of the disease. Din was working with a strain that the vaccine does not protect against.

Din appeared to be fine when he left work on Friday, but he became very ill shortly afterwards, according to Harry Lampiris, chief of San Francisco's VA Hospital's infectious diseases division, where Din died.

"He left the lab around 5 p.m." on Friday, Lampiris told CBS News. "He had no symptoms at all."

Headache, fever and chills set in around two hours after Din left work. He woke up with a rash the next morning and asked a friend to drive him to the hospital. On the way there, however, he lost consciousness and arrived at the hospital without a pulse. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

"The early symptoms of this infection are very non-specific," Lampis told ABC News. "In the first few hours, people don't realize how sick they really are."

Lampis said Cal-OSHA, the California Occupational Health and Safety Association, is investigating the incident and that it appears as though Din followed all necessary precautions, such as wearing a mask and ensuring the workplace is well ventilated.

"It's exceedingly rare for someone to acquire a fatal infection due to the work they perform in the lab," Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News. "When something like this happens, it's a tragedy. We want to learn as much as we can about what happened as a way to prevent it from happening again in the future."

Between 1985 and 2001 there were 16 instances of researchers who worked with Meningococcus becoming infected with the disease and dying, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology. Eight of the cases were fatal, and researchers found that in 15 of those cases, the researchers were not following safety protocols.

There is always a risk when working with infectious diseases, but the benefits typically outweigh the risks, Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told ABC News.

"There are very elaborate, very thoughtfully prepared safety protocols in place, but there's always a risk," he said. "This work is essential in order to develop preventive measures. Let's not forget this is a dangerous strain of this bacteria for which we do not have a vaccine."

The CDC is helping with the investigation and said friends and coworkers, alongside health workers who assisted Din, are taking antibiotics.

"We're not certain how this death happened," Alison Patti, CDC spokeswoman, told the San Jose Mercury News, "but hopefully the investigation will turn up some answers to help prevent it from ever happening again."

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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