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Pitt laboratory worker contracts Zika from needle stick

Ben Schmitt
| Thursday, June 9, 2016, 1:27 p.m.
Mosquito
Courtesy of James Gathany/CDC
Mosquito

A University of Pittsburgh researcher became infected with Zika by accidentally sticking herself with a needle while working with the virus in a laboratory, potentially the first such transmission of its kind, health officials reported Thursday.

Officials would not identify the worker, who becomes the fourth confirmed case of Zika in Allegheny County.

Pitt officials said the researcher stuck herself May 23 while conducting an experiment with the virus.

County health officials called the case unique because the person has not traveled to a Zika-affected area, such as Brazil. Zika is generally transmitted through a bite from the Aedes aegypti species of mosquito, the primary carrier of the virus, and sexual intercourse.

The worker developed symptoms of the infection June 1, and a blood sample tested positive for Zika on Wednesday, said Joe Miksch, a Pitt spokesman.

“The researcher was free of fever by June 6 and returned to work on that date,” Miksch said, adding that he did not know when she was sent home from work.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Tom Skinner said, “This may be the first instance where Zika has been transmitted in a laboratory during this outbreak, and we want to reiterate the importance of laboratory workers adhering to our guidelines to prevent transmission in these settings.”

Needle stick incidents among health care workers are fairly common, according to data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the CDC. Those data show an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 needle stick injuries occur annually in the United States in hospitals and other health care settings.

County health department officials said the Pitt worker is doing well and nobody else was infected.

The worker has been instructed to wear long sleeves and pants and use insect repellent with DEET for three weeks to avoid mosquito bites. The reasoning, explained county Health Director Karen Hacker, is that if a certain species of mosquito bites someone with an active infection, it could potentially carry the virus to someone else.

“It's really very much a preventive strategy,” Dr. Hacker said, adding there are no known Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the region.

“We want to remind residents that, despite this rare incident, there is still no current risk of contracting Zika from mosquitoes in Allegheny County. For those traveling to countries affected by Zika, we urge caution. Pregnant women, particularly, should avoid travel to affected countries,” Hacker said.

Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health last month launched an international alliance, “Cura Zika,” with counterparts in Brazil, to speed up fundraising for research into the mosquito-borne virus. The association began with about $1 million from anonymous donors and matching funds. Miksch said he did not know whether the infected worker was associated with the Cura Zika effort.

The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week, although the majority of people infected with the virus do not have any symptoms.

Zika virus infection has been linked to birth defects. The CDC confirmed in April that Zika can cause microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads and often improperly developed brains. There is no vaccine to prevent, or medicine to treat Zika virus infection.

Local mosquito transmission of Zika has not been documented in Pennsylvania, health officials have said. The Zika virus is affecting large parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, with Brazil the hardest hit. The CDC has reported 618 cases of the virus in the United States, all of them travel-related. Nineteen of the cases have been among Pennsylvania residents.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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