Laboratory worker hurt

Smallpox vaccine drum ruptures

no health threat

May 09, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber and Tom Pelton | Del Quentin Wilber and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A worker at a city laboratory was injured yesterday morning when a pressurized 55-gallon drum containing smallpox vaccine ruptured, and its lid struck him in the head, fire officials said.

The worker, whose name was not released, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for treatment.

Authorities said no smallpox vaccine escaped during the incident. Even if it had, experts said, it would not have posed a health threat.

Fire officials said the worker attempted to open the drum about 9 a.m. at Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc. at 1111 S. Paca St. Due to built-up pressure inside the drum, the lid popped off and hit him in the head, officials said.

A smaller container inside the drum held the smallpox vaccine.

The vaccine is not made from the actual smallpox virus but from a much safer virus called vaccinia, which is derived from cowpox and creates small boils on people while providing immunity from smallpox.

Officials with Chesapeake Biological Laboratories did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Gigi Kwik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense, said that if someone were splashed with the vaccine, he would face a risk of contracting boils and a slight fever.

He would also have about a 1 in 300,000 chance of contracting encephalitis, a sometimes fatal swelling of the brain. But the virus does not travel through the air, so the public would not be at risk of such side effects.

"If this were smallpox, it would be a big problem. But it's not," said Kwik.

"If he got splashed with the live virus, he basically runs the risk of vaccinating himself. ... There is a risk that he could get pox on his body, which could be a problem if he got it in his eyes. But he would also be very, very immune to smallpox."

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