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Plague in New Jersey?

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that mice carrying Yersinia pestis ? the bacteria that cause bubonic plague -- had disappeared from a laboratory at the Public Health Research Institute, part of the campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The university says it does not know what happened to the mice, first discovered missing two weeks ago. According to the AP, health experts reassured that there was ?scant public risk.? That?s not what Robert Brubaker,

By | September 17, 2005

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that mice carrying Yersinia pestis ? the bacteria that cause bubonic plague -- had disappeared from a laboratory at the Public Health Research Institute, part of the campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The university says it does not know what happened to the mice, first discovered missing two weeks ago. According to the AP, health experts reassured that there was ?scant public risk.? That?s not what Robert Brubaker, a researcher at Michigan State University who works with Yersinia pestis and has studied it in its wild-type form, says. ?There certainly are scenarios where there could be incredible risk,? he told me over the phone. ?It is so serious, I frankly can?t believe the story that it happened at all.? Here are the risks, as Brubaker sees them: If the mice were eaten, the animals that ate them are likely infected with plague themselves, Brubaker says. If the mice escaped, they die of plague within a few days after being infected, he notes. Depending on how soon after infection they escaped, there could be ample time for an infected mouse?s fleas to jump to mice and rats living outside the lab, and these animals can serve as launching points for infecting humans, Brubaker notes. Fleas typically live up to a month. If the mice were stolen, they could be used ?immediately? to infect people, he says. As a result, researchers working with mice need to take strict precautions, and if this lab did not, it should be investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and public health officials, he notes. And even paperwork errors are a sign that the laboratory is not running itself well, Brubaker notes. Indeed, the school is experiencing a string of unsolved break-ins and has triggered a federal investigation into charges of corruption in spending, suggesting that this latest incident might be an example of much more pervasive problems. ?The place should be shut down until the issue is resolved,? says Brubaker bluntly.
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