On September 18, 2009, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) was notified by a local hospital of a suspected case of fatal laboratory-acquired infection with Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. The patient, a researcher in a university laboratory, had been working along with other members of the laboratory group with a pigmentation-negative (pgm-) attenuated Y. pestis strain (KIM D27). The strain had not been known to have caused laboratory-acquired infections or human fatalities. Other researchers in a separate university laboratory facility in the same building had contact with a virulent Y. pestis strain (CO92) that is considered a select biologic agent; however, the pgm- attenuated KIM D27 is excluded from the National Select Agent Registry (1). The university, CDPH, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), and CDC conducted an investigation to ascertain the cause of death. This report summarizes the results of that investigation, which determined that the cause of death likely was an unrecognized occupational exposure (route unknown) to Y. pestis, leading to septic shock. Y. pestis was isolated from premortem blood cultures. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) identified the clinical isolate as a pgm- strain of Y. pestis. Postmortem examination revealed no evidence of pneumonic plague. A postmortem diagnosis of hereditary hemochromatosis was made on the basis of histopathologic, laboratory, and genetic testing. One possible explanation for the unexpected fatal outcome in this patient is that hemochromatosis-induced iron overload might have provided the infecting KIM D27 strain, which is attenuated as a result of defects in its ability to acquire iron, with sufficient iron to overcome its iron-acquisition defects and become virulent (2). Researchers should adhere to recommended biosafety practices when handling any live bacterial cultures, even attenuated strains, and institutional biosafety committees should implement and maintain effective surveillance systems to detect and monitor unexpected acute illness in laboratory workers.
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