(CBS/AP) SAN FRANCISCO - A researcher at an infectious diseases laboratory in San Francisco has died of a rare bacteria strain, California health officials said, raising fears the man's friends and fellow researchers may too have been infected.
The 25-year-old man who worked at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who has not been named, died over the weekend shortly after asking friends to take him to a hospital, the San Jose Mercury News reported Wednesday.
California Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Peter Melton told the paper that the man had been handling a bacteria linked to bloodstream infections at the VA Hospital's Northern California Institute for Research and Education.
Cal-OSHA was investigating the death and trying to determine if the lab followed safety protocol.
Harry Lampiris, chief of the VA Hospital's infectious diseases division, said workers at the facility are expected to wear gloves, gowns and work behind a protective "safety cabinet," or hood, while isolating the bacteria.
"His co-workers felt he was highly competent and that he was adequately supervised to do the level of work," Lampiris said.
According to the Mercury News, a state laboratory confirmed the worker was infected with the rare Neisseria meningitidis bacterial strain he had been working with for months before his death.
The bacterial strain causes septicemia and meningitis, officials said. Septicemia is an inflammation of the bloodstream that causes bleeding into the skin and organs and is believed to be the cause of the man's death. It can be spread by sneezing, coughing or kissing. Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, that can result in brain damage and death without immediate treatment.
"He left the lab around 5 p.m." Friday, said Lampiris said. "He had no symptoms at all." The man reportedly told his girlfriend two hours later that he felt sick with a headache, fever and chills. By Saturday morning his symptoms worsened with a rash and he asked to be taken to the hospital, but fell unconscious in the car and had no pulse on arrival. He died later that morning.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Department of Public Health was trying to locate everyone who had close contact with the researcher during the time he was infected, said spokeswoman Eileen Shields.
Friends and people who worked with man, as well as about 60 health workers involved in his treatment, were being given antibiotics, Shields said.
The CDC is also helping state and local officials with their investigation.
Centers for Disease Control spokeswoman Alison Patti wrote in an email to the San Jose Mercury news, "We're not certain how this death happened, but hopefully the investigation will turn up some answers to help prevent it from ever happening again."