What does it take to keep lab workers safe at the diagnostic lab?

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Farm Forum

In this space, I’ve discussed some of the diseases that can pass from animals to people (zoonotic diseases). They range from mere nuisances (ringworm) to illnesses that are potentially fatal (rabies). People right here in our region get sick from zoonotic diseases on a fairly regular basis.

Fortunately, zoonotic diseases are relatively uncommon compared to major health issues such as diabetes or cancer. While it’s more common for South Dakotans to have contact with farm animals and pets compared with people living elsewhere, those contacts uncommonly result in illness.

But what about people that regularly work with less-than-healthy animals? Veterinarians are obvious examples, but even more regular contact with animal diseases occurs with a group of people that work right here in my building: animal diagnostic lab workers.

Animal diagnostic lab workers work with samples from diseased animals sent in from veterinarians across the country. The vast majority of these samples don’t contain germs that make people sick. But some of them do. What’s more, workers don’t know right away if that box they open or animal on the necropsy floor might harbor a zoonotic disease threat. That answer comes later, after test results are complete.

Those are some of the reasons that our South Dakota Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (ADRDL) spends substantial effort and resources to keep those workers safe from potentially zoonotic germs. Those workers are the engine that keep the diagnostic lab going. If they are out with illness, the lab’s ability to provide critical animal health answers suffers. And what if they would spread such an illness to family or community members? The stakes for ensuring “biosafety” at the lab are high.

Even though equipment, training, and procedures for safe lab practices are in place at the ADRDL, maintaining that safe environment takes work. Currently, the lab is only designed to operate at what’s called BSL-2: biosafety level 2. This means protections are in place for workers to deal with germs that might be nasty for animals, but not normally bad for people.

Most veterinary diagnostic labs have at least some space designated as BSL-3. This provides an even greater level of protection for lab workers working with diseases and situations that put them at higher risk – anthrax, for example. The ADRDL regularly deals with samples containing germs like that, but without BSL-3 space, those samples have to be safely destroyed as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed.

That presents a problem for animal disease work in our state. South Dakota is right up there when it comes to BSL-3 type diseases in our animals! Every year the ADRDL diagnoses diseases such as anthrax, tularemia, and West Nile Virus, but because there is no BSL-3 capability, they can’t do any further work to help figure out better ways to diagnose or prevent these illnesses in our South Dakota animals.

Biosafety Level 3 lab space is also becoming a USDA requirement for providing the full range of some testing. Last year, the ADRDL played a crucial role in quickly detecting Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in area turkey and layer flocks. But the lab was not allowed to grow those viruses for further testing because of the lack of BSL-3 space. Those samples had to be shipped down to the federal lab in Iowa. These types of requirements are expected to increasingly affect other testing in the future as well.

The ADRDL is doing the best job they can with their current equipment and facilities to maintain the safety of workers and provide for the highest level of testing possible. But the current facility was designed when biosafety was not as high a priority. The lab has had to improvise with the old design to meet current standards. What’s more, on numerous occasions aging air handling equipment has forced workers to stop their pathogen work to allow for safety-related repairs.

As it has taken more and more effort to work with these issues over the years, plans for a newly-designed facility that includes BSL-3 space are being discussed. Making worker safety easier and enabling more work with higher-consequence germs are only a couple reasons why that’s a good idea for South Dakotans and our animals.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.