Lab contamination causes first U.S. case of cowpox

Lab contamination was apparently behind the first person in the United States becoming infected with cowpox.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that the unvaccinated University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign student lab worker was infected by a genetically modified cowpox virus that in was in her lab, according to News.ScienceMag.org.

According to the CDC, the student was not working with the cowpox virus in any way. It was apparently contracted through the inadvertent handling of contaminated materials.

Cowpox, a less dangerous relative of smallpox, lives in the wild in Europe and Asia. It is carried by rats and other animals and is often reported in veterinarians and zoo workers. It is not found in the United States, except in research laboratories. Cowpox is generally not lethal.

The CDC recommends smallpox vaccinations for all of those who have a high likelihood of coming into contact with orthopoxviruses like cowpox and vaccinia, News.ScienceMag.org reports. The patient in this case refused the smallpox vaccination because she did not intend to handle the virus and because the lab had not worked on cowpox for at least five years prior to the incident.

Cowpox DNA was found in many places around the laboratory. No live poxvirus was found on surfaces.

The student did not recall an injury or needle stick prior to developing a painful lesion on her finger in July 2010, News.ScienceMag.org reports. She most likely contracted the virus through handling contaminated chemicals or samples.

The CDC's Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology and the Illinois Department of Public Health have made safety recommendations to the University of Illinois’s biological safety department that are currently being considered.

A university spokesman told News.ScienceMag.org that the investigation showed that the lab was following proscribed campus safety procedures for storing hazardous materials. The campus, however, is making sure that all people working in labs with such materials are aware of them.