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San Francisco VA Lab Shuts Down Following Researcher's Death

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – A laboratory at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center has been shut down following the weekend death of a researcher that was apparently caused by deadly bacteria he was working with, a VA official said Thursday.

The researcher, identified by the medical examiner's office as 25-year-old Richard Din, died Saturday morning after working all week with a rare strain of the bacterium meningococcus that has no available vaccine, said Dr. Harry Lampiris, chief of infectious disease at the San Francisco VA.

Din's research included growing the bacteria and isolating parts of it in the hopes of finding a vaccine, Lampiris said.

KCBS' Doug Sovern Reports:

After leaving work on Friday, Din apparently started feeling sick around 7 p.m. When his symptoms worsened Saturday, he was taken to the VA medical center where he died, according to Lampiris.

Din died just 17 hours after developing acute symptoms of meningitis. He had complained of flu-like symptoms Friday night that worsened quickly into a full-body rash.

The disease caused by the bacteria has an incubation period of three to five days, which "makes us think he was probably exposed during the workweek," Lampiris said.

As a precaution, Din's girlfriend, housemates and the five people working with him at the lab were given antibiotics to prevent them from getting the infection, he said.

About 60 people who were involved in treating him at the medical center also received the antibiotics, Lampiris said.

He said employees at the center have been "profoundly devastated" by Din's death.

Din has been described as smart and careful by his supervisors.

VA officials held a town hall meeting on Monday for its employees to discuss the tragedy and to offer grief counseling. About 200 people showed up, Lampiris said.

The lab has been closed indefinitely while the VA investigates the incident, he said. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating Din's death.

Lampiris said there were "no obvious malfunctions or laboratory spills" that may have led to Din becoming infected.

"We're waiting for further guidance on what we might be able to do to prevent this from happening in the future," he said. "Laboratory safety is always an ongoing concern, and I'm sure this will lead to some changes in our practices."

Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said Din was employed by the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing veterans' health research that is based at the VA medical center at 4150 Clement St.

Cal/OSHA has six months to complete an investigation, and if any workplace violations are uncovered, the employer could face citations and fines, Monterroza said.

Monterroza also said that state and federal officials are working together to figure out what caused the death, which she called unusual.

"I've worked here going on four years and this is the first case like this that I've seen," she said.

Dr. Roger Baxter, co-director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center, said this is a tragic case.

"The laboratory is a potentially dangerous place," he said. "There are other pathogens that are much worse than this that people do get. You definitely see problems from infectious diseases in laboratories. It's not rare, but it's really rare for someone to die like this."

San Francisco Department of Public Health spokesperson Eileen Shields said because the young man died on Saturday and because the incubation period is 3 to 5 days, it's unlikely that anyone else has been infected.

All local hospitals have been put on alert to watch out for anyone coming in with the symptoms and to immediately contact public health, but as of this time, there have been no reports.

The bacterium in question is Neisseria meningitidis, which is spread through close contact, for example kissing or using the same toothbrush.

According to the World Health Organization, Neisseria meningitidis only infects humans. The bacteria can be carried in the throat and sometimes, for reasons not fully understood, can overwhelm the body's defenses allowing infection to spread through the bloodstream to the brain. Although there remain gaps in our knowledge, it is believed that 10 to 20 percent of the population carries Neisseria meningitidis in their throat at any given time, with a relatively small number ever falling ill.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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