Occupational Zika Risks for Lab and Biomedical Researchers


Deep-dives into Zika virus exposures shed light on how we can protect lab workers.

The rapid spread of Zika virus may have slowed, but we’re still feeling the effects. From children born with microcephaly related to congenital Zika to the challenges of mosquito-control, Zika tested worldwide public health and health care response in a new way. Since the large outbreak began in 2015, the virus has spread to more than 80 countries/territories and 42,000 cases were identified in the United States alone. Thankfully, there is no current local transmission of the disease in the United States, even though Florida and Texas reported local transmission by mosquitoes in 2016 and 2017.

Although the threat of Zika has diminished in the United States and much of the focus is on travel to endemic regions, there is a real hazard for those working in laboratories. Investigators from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health within the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently wrote about the ongoing health hazards for laboratory and biomedical researcher workers.

Pointing to the reports received over the last few years, the authors emphasized that there is still a risk for those working in the lab setting. The agencies received reports of 3 Zika virus exposure incidents related to occupational exposure in a lab setting during the period of heightened disease transmission around the world.

The first incident was in 2016 and involved a needlestick injury in Pennsylvania. A woman was exposed as she was manipulating viral samples during her work on a vaccine trial. Unfortunately, within a week after the exposure, she developed symptoms and was confirmed to have the disease via laboratory testing. Her case is the only documented one of these 3 separate incidents in which Zika virus infection was developed following exposure.

The second exposure incident occurred in New York in 2016 and is a stark reminder to be nice to the laboratory mice you may be working with. A 36-year-old man was bitten by a Zika virus-infected mouse he was injecting with an experimental drug. Thankfully, he remained symptom-free and was confirmed to have avoided infection via testing.

The last occupational exposure in this series took place in Pennsylvania in 2017 when a 22-year-old female researcher was lacerated with a scalpel. She was harvesting chickens experimentally infected with Zika virus when the incident occurred, but was later confirmed to be Zika virus-free via lab tests.

These 3 exposures shed light on the risks for laboratory workers and the need for infection prevention practices in both the lab and biomedical research settings when working with infectious diseases. The authors emphasized the need for “effective engineering controls, including sharps engineered to prevent injuries, combine with administrative controls, proper personal protective equipment, and adequate training.”

Fundamentally, we often focus on health care workers as having the potential for needlestick injuries and exposure to infectious diseases, but it’s important that we consider the role of researchers and laboratory workers, especially during outbreaks of novel or emerging diseases. In the case of such an outbreak, the role of these researchers and laboratory workers will be even more critical, meaning that we should work to ensure their environment and work processes are as safe as possible.

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