5 Aug 2008

Lab safety procedures sound despite infection - PSA

6:27 am on 5 August 2008

Researchers say the safety procedures at their Crown Research Institute are world standard, despite a report finding a scientist was infected by meningococcal B while working there.

British scientist Jeanette Adu-Bobie lost her legs, an arm and several fingers on her remaining hand after she suffered blood poisoning caused by the disease in early 2005.

A Public Service Association spokesperson, Brenda Pilott, says its members would raise the alarm if they had concerns that safety procedures at ESR were unsound.

The Labour Department now says she probably caught the disease while working at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research laboratory in Porirua.

Dr Adu-Bobie and her family always maintained that she got the deadly meningococcal disease at the Porirua laboratory, but that was rejected by ESR and the Labour Department.

New reports for the department and the Accident Compensation Corporation now say it is likely that she contracted the disease at the laboratory rather than in the community.

In a statement, Dr Adu-Bobie thanked the Department of Labour for its updated report.

"This report has finally clarified and reached a conclusion regarding where I acquired the Neisseria meningitis infection during my visit to New Zealand in March 2005," she said.

"The outcome of this report concludes three years of distress and brings closure to my family and I.

"I would thank all the New Zealand people for their support and prayers during these years, and for the letters, cards and gifts during my hospital stay in New Zealand."

Her lawyer John Miller, says she has also received compensation from Chiron, the company she was working for. Mr Miller says Dr Adu-Bobie is not bitter about the experience and wants to put it behind her.

ACC is now offering a lump sum payment of $117,000 to Dr Adu-Bobie, and will pay the $331,000 hospital bill for her treatment at Wellington and Lower Hutt hospitals, which included two months in intensive care.

The Labour Department has apologised to Dr Adu-Bobie for the distress its original position may have caused her, but has not paid her any money.

Laboratory safety

Dr Adu-Bobie was infected with neisseria meningitis, one of the bacteria or organisms that cause most acute bacterial meningitis.

The Labour Department says this organism was handled on what is called the open bench at the lab, instead of in a biological safety cabinet.

The same procedure remains in place, and the department says that is safe as long as the organism is in solid form. It is not considered safe if the organism is in liquid form, when it can easily get into the air, or it if is frozen. However, the department says there is no evidence that occurred.

The department says the laboratory meets international standards, and there is no reason to review safety in the laboratory.

Not proven - ESR

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research says it still cannot be proven that Dr Jeanette Adu-Bobie caught the disease from working in the laboratory.

ESR's general manager of environmental health, Dr Fiona Thompson-Carter, says Dr Adu-Bobie was infected with the epidemic stream which exists not only in the ESR laboratory, but in the laboratory where she previously worked and in the Wellington community.

Dr Thompson-Carter told Morning Report that because of the wide distribution, there is no way of proving the source.

Report's conclusions

The report for ACC and the department was carried out by the associate professor of infectious diseases at Auckland University, Mark Thomas.

He says the strain of meningococcal B that Dr Adu-Bobie contracted is indistinguishable from the strain she was working with in the laboratory.

Dr Thomas says there were four other people in the community who had the disease at the time, but the strain they had did not match that of Dr Adu-Bobie.

He says all factors taken together lead him to the clear conclusion that she got the disease at the ESR laboratory.

The Labour Department said its own independent study had come to the same conclusion.