Message About UTMB's Focus on Lab Safety

UTMB has long believed that its employees and the Galveston community at large play a key role in the success of its research enterprise – in particular, its infectious disease research program and campus facilities designed for the safe study of serious viral and bacterial threats to human health. As a result, the university is committed to keeping the communities it serves well-informed, and to seeking their perspective on related issues.

UTMB also considers the safety of its employees and students, and of the community as a whole, paramount. Although very few of the infectious agents that researchers study in its high containment (BSL3 and BSL4) laboratories are transmissible from person-to-person, we believe each of these constituencies has an important stake in the safe operations of our laboratories and facilities. To that end, we will continue to make public information about possible laboratory-associated exposures to infectious agents in our research program.

It is important to note that published reports on laboratory-associated exposures to infectious agents in high-containment research laboratories are few and far between. That said, one study – Experience in the Medical Management of Potential Laboratory Exposures to Agents of Bioterrorism on the Basis of Risk Assessment at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (Rusnak, J.M., et al., 1: J Occup Environ Med. 2004 Aug; 46(8):801-11) – documented “234 evaluations of potential exposures and illnesses to bacterial, rickettsial, and viral disease agents…[and] five confirmed infections” at USAMRIID between 1989 and 2002.

Between January 1, 2002, and August 11, 2008, there were 25 reports of possible exposures to infectious agents among the 1,500 employees and students who work in all of our biomedical research programs, none of which resulted in the researcher involved reporting an illness. Because we encourage our faculty and students to routinely report any unusual event in the laboratory, the posted report includes incidents in which there is no likely exposure to an infectious agent.

Given the multiple redundant containment layers in a BSL3 or BSL4 laboratory, and the fact that almost all of the infectious agents worked on in these labs are not transmissible between humans, any such exposure poses by far the greatest risk to the laboratory worker involved. In the unusual situation where the possible exposure involved a virus or bacterium that is reasonably capable of being transmitted from one person to another, that fact is noted in the table.

We invite you to review the history of possible occupational exposures at UTMB’s research laboratories.

If you have any questions about the information provided, please contact us.

David L. Callender

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