Cuts plague disease prevention labs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is in the front line of the world's response to the deadly Ebola virus epidemic in Zaire, is finding itself hard pressed to cope with the crisis.

Budget constraints have left its highest security laboratory critically understaffed, and there is grave concern that overwork could lead to a fatal accident, officials of the agency here and independent experts said in interviews.

In addition, in other laboratories at the agency's headquarters in Atlanta, where work on less dangerous organisms is carried out, the physical conditions are deteriorating and overcrowded.

A walk through those areas in the past few days revealed red "Biohazard" stickers on dozens of refrigerators and freezers and other equipment crowding the hallways. Ventilators blow air at people when they are designed to suck it away. The federal agency is renowned for its epidemiological and laboratory studies of disease outbreaks, and its scientists are in frequent demand by countries throughout the world.

They have led the inquiries into Legionnaires' disease, AIDS, the hanta virus outbreak and many other threats to public health. And, despite being understaffed, the laboratory was able to identify the cause of the Zaire outbreak as Ebola in just two days.

But officials at the centers say that a steady cutback in financing has left the laboratory with barely sufficient resources to do its job safely. While understaffing of the maximum-security laboratory is the most acute problem, the general deterioration is also a safety hazard, agency officials say.

While such complaints from a government agency may seem like a standard plea for consideration in an era of shrinking budgets, independent experts who have visited the centers' laboratories say they too have been shocked by the inadequate staffing and poor conditions.

The agency's budget has doubled in the first half of the decade, from $1.4 billion in the fiscal year 1990 to $2.8 billion in the current year. But nearly all the increase is designated for specific programs like those involving breast and cervical cancer ($457 million) and immunizations ($625 million).

And despite the increase in the workload, the number of full-time employees, two-thirds of whom are at its Atlanta headquarters, has dropped to 6,500 from 7,000 in 1992.

Similarly, the $3.5 million budgeted for repairs and improvements has remained steady over recent years, except for a one-year blip of $6 million.

Even if agency officials wanted to reallocate funds, federal policy virtually precludes shifting funds allocated to specific projects without approval from Washington, said William H. Gimson, director of the agency's financial management office.

But none of this explains why with a staff of 6,500, such a crucial area of the laboratory should be understaffed.

The laboratory is crucial to the investigation in Zaire, in part because there are only five such high-security laboratories in the world. One other is in the United States, at the Fort Detrick Army base in Maryland.

Several of the agency's major laboratories, designed about 40 years ago, are so antiquated and crowded, said Dr. King K. Holmes, an international leader in infectious diseases from the University of Washington in Seattle, that though they "are handling most bacteriological, fungal and a good deal of the viral work," the buildings in which they are housed "would not be allowed to stay open in most universities."

"As I walked through the laboratories a week ago, I actually felt unsafe myself," said Dr. Holmes, who was a member of an independent panel that advises the centers on its infectious disease work.

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