It’s been two years since a media-fueled panic thrust the West African Ebola epidemic into the headlines in the United States after three American healthcare workers were diagnosed with the virus. However, a new potential case of the virus in Canada has drawn far less attention.
Last week, Canadian officials confirmed that a worker at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease, part of the Canadian Science Center for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg, a biosafety level (BSL) 4 containment facility, may have been exposed to the virus while working with pigs that had been infected with the deadly virus for research purposes. According to the officials, the lab worker was wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) in accordance with international safety protocols for Ebola and, as a result, it is believed that he had been protected from the bodily fluids of the infected pig; however, a hole was discovered in his PPE during the standard decontamination process.
The lab worker has been placed in “self-isolation” for 21 days and was offered an experimental vaccine against the virus, although whether or not he has taken the vaccine is unknown. He is being monitored by local health officials.
“Our employees are well aware of the risks and how to control them. All proper emergency procedures were followed,” John Copps, DVM, director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, told the press
“At this point, there is no risk to Canadians, to the community or to other employees of the lab, because the individual is not infectious,” added Theresa Tam, MD, deputy chief public health officer of the Public Health Agency.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 to 2015 was the largest in recorded history
, with more than 25,000 cases and 10,000 fatalities. Although there were new cases of the virus reported in the region as recently as last spring
, WHO does not yet believe that the situation there constitutes another public health emergency.
“This is a lab incident, [and] an important reminder of how brave the folks are who do the critical work on these viruses in BSL-4 laboratories,” David N. Fisman, MD, MPH, professor, division of epidemiology, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, told Contagion
. Dr. Fisman has published research on Ebola, but is not aware of the specifics of the Winnipeg case.
“Such accidents happen, [despite] a tremendous focus on biosafety in such labs,” he continued. “I don’t think this particular case has any implications for public health in the wider sphere, beyond reminding us that accidents and accidental exposure can happen even in the best labs.”
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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