Friday, January 21, 2005

Boston University Delayed Reporting Tularemia Outbreak

The Boston Globe reported (here and here) Boston University's (BUs) sluggish public response to an apparent tularemia outbreak at one of its research laboratories. In May, 2004, two laboratory staff became ill with flu-like illnesses. After a third worker got sick in October, researchers discovered that instead of working with harmless bacteria, their specimens were contaminated with a virulent tularemia strain. On November 4, the University's Biosafety Committee shut down the research project.
Why mention this here? Apparently, Massachusetts law requires immediate reporting of infectious diseases like tularemia, yet BU did not report the outbreak to the public health department until November 9. BU has been planning the construction of a Level 4 laboratory to study extremely virulent pathogens at a site in the densely populated South End of Boston. To gain approval for the new laboratory, BU filed an environmental impact report with the state Environmental Affairs department that claimed a perfect safety record for protecting workers against laboratory acquired infections. However, BU failed to update the report with information about the outbreak, despite state environmental regulations that require such corrections.
Finally, as a Globe editorial noted, to sell the laboratory to a dubious public, BU promised maximum opennes and candor. However, BU never notified the public of the tularemia outbreak until the stories appeared in the Globe. At that point, the spin put on the events by BU spokesperson Ellen Berlin was, "It doesn't change our stellar safety record." Moreover, our "first obligation in this incident was to ensure there was no public health risk and to report the incident to ... local, state, and federal public health authorities," although, not apparently, to do so very quickly.
As a Globe columnist pointed out, "Trust is a fragile thing - hard to build, harder still to rebuild." Many large health care organizations need some serious education about what openness and candor really mean.

No comments: