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Plague Kills U.S. Lab Worker
Date:2/24/2011

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Feb. 24 (HealthDay News) -- While experts stress that epidemics of plague will probably remain a scourge of centuries past, isolated cases still appear, even in the United States.

In fact, according to a just-released government report, a American lab worker died from plague in 2009 -- the first case of plague from a laboratory-acquired infection since 1959 and the first known death from a weakened form of the germ.

The report appears in the February 25 issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Not only are cases of the plague "unusual," said Dr. Steven Hinrichs, chairman of the department of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, but "it's unusual to have laboratory accidents. I would say there are less than 10 cases of laboratory accidents involving infectious diseases per year."

Yersinia pestis, the cause of plague, is the microbe that was harbored by fleas-on-rats in the Middle Ages and created the Black Plague, which wiped out a third of Europe's population.

The case of the lab worker is particularly intriguing because he was working with a weakened strain of Y. pestis, one that has not been known to cause harm to humans.

"Most laboratories that do basic science use attenuated strains all the time, so it's the so-called 'safer' way to do these research experiments rather than to use the fully virulent strain," Hinrichs said.

According to the CDC report, the 60-year-old lab worker first sought medical help with symptoms of what could have been the flu -- fever, aches and pains and a cough -- on Sept. 10, 2009.

He didn't follow-up on that consultation and three days later, on September 13, arrived via ambulance at a Chicago hospital. His symptoms were worse and he also complained of shortness of breath.

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