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Tuberculosis spilled at Johns Hopkins Hospital because latch failed

Frozen tuberculosis spilled Thursday within the Johns Hopkins Cancer Research Building, creating a potential hazard after a latch failed on a transport container, an official with the medical institution said Friday.

The leak, which caused two buildings to be evacuated Thursday afternoon, is believed to be a one-time incident, spokesman Ken Willis said in a statement.

However, Willis said staff will be retrained and policies will be reviewed because of the incident.

“Although we believe that this was a one-time event with no risk to anyone on campus, we take this event seriously and will conduct a thorough review of existing procedures, retrain staff and make any other needed improvements,” Willis said. “We have not had prior issues with transporting samples.”

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office will not investigate the incident because no one was injured. Hopkins officials have said the leaked sample was equivalent to a few drops.

The leak happened in a bridge between two buildings in the 1500 block of Orleans St., where there are no patients. Hospital officials said they also do not believe employees in the area were exposed to the bacteria. No one was treated after the sample was released.

People exposed to tuberculosis may not know if they have contracted the disease right away without getting tested. They may start to see symptoms in the first few weeks or it may not affect them until years later when their immune system becomes weakened.

Fire officials had been concerned that the sample might spread through the buildings’ heating and cooling system, but Hopkins quickly shut the system down. The disease is spread through tiny droplets that get into the air when somebody coughs or sneezes.

Tuberculosis can infect the lungs and other parts of body. It can cause coughing that may last a few weeks as well as fever and fatigue, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Some people cough up blood. It is typically treated with a drug regimen that lasts at least six months.

The disease is rare in the United States, with only about 9,272 cases reported in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Worldwide, it killed 1.6 million people that year.

The frozen research material appears to have been pushed out of the transport container, after the latch failed, due to pressure from a secondary interior container holding dry ice, Willis said.

Researchers working with tuberculosis and other materials at Johns Hopkins must comply with federal and institutional requirements when handling these materials, including during transport, he added.

Johns Hopkins has an Institutional Biosafety Committee, mandated by The National Institutes of Health, which regulates research laboratories using harmful substances.

The researchers who were transporting the samples were conducting basic research that does not involve human subjects and focuses on helping scientists understand how the disease works, Willis said.

The buildings were closed for several hours Thursday as nearly a dozen fire vehicles responded to the situation. The building was reopened after clearance by public health officials and infectious disease experts, including from the Baltimore City Health Department. The Maryland Health Department took its guidance from city officials, a spokeswoman said.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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