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Report into the investigation of ESR meningitis infection case of Dr Jeannette Adu-Bobie

04 August 2008

The Department of Labour says it is now of the opinion that a scientist who contracted meningococcal disease while working at an Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) laboratory probably contracted the disease from the laboratory in the course of her work.

The Department has also apologised to the scientist, Dr Jeannette Adu-Bobie, for originally finding that she was not infected at the laboratory.

Dr Adu-Bobie, a visiting specialist working at the Meningitis Vaccine Antibody Testing Laboratory at ESR Kenepuru, contracted Neisseria meningitidis in March 2005.

Department of Labour Chief Adviser Occupational Health Dr Geraint Emrys has reviewed the department’s original investigation, which concluded it was “extremely unlikely” Dr Adu-Bobie was infected at the ESR laboratory.

In a report released today Dr Emrys said that, like the original investigators he was unable to identify exactly how Dr Adu-Bobie was infected or find any faults with ESR’s safety systems that could have led to the infection. “ESR’s safety systems conform to international best practice and no failure of these systems has been identified.”

However, there was no compelling evidence to suggest she was infected anywhere else.
“Given the circumstances, it is my opinion as an occupational health specialist, that on the balance of probabilities Dr Adu-Bobie was infected at the laboratory. The cause of this infection remains unknown.”

Department Regional Manager Mike Munnelly has informed Dr Adu-Bobie of the new conclusion, and apologised for the distress the original finding may have caused.

“I regret the failure of the original investigation to reach what now appears a reasonable conclusion and apologise for any distress this may have caused. We acknowledge the ordeal that this has been for Dr Adu-Bobie, and appreciate that she wishes to ensure no other scientists suffer as she has.”

Dr Emrys said the original investigation didn’t miss any key evidence that could have identified the cause of the infection, and correctly found that there were no faults with ESR’s safety systems or grounds for any enforcement action by the department.

Information considered during his review included new research on whether there is an increased risk of infection for laboratory staff, and a new ACC-commissioned report that concluded that the balance of probabilities overwhelmingly suggested that Dr Adu-Bobie contracted meningitis disease from her work at the ESR laboratory.

Dr Emrys said the research on lab-acquired infections was discussed in a report released by the department last year, Review of Laboratory Practices in Handling Neisseria Meningitidis. The report – which included input from New Zealand and international scientists - concluded that the safety standards recognised in New Zealand laboratories were consistent with international recommendations, and there was no clear or urgent need for change.
That view has not changed, Dr Emrys said.

The ACC-commissioned report, by Dr Mark Thomas, Associate Professor in Infectious Diseases University of Auckland, confirmed the original investigation findings that the strain of the organism that infected Dr Adu-Bobie was indistinguishable from the one she worked with in the laboratory and the epidemic strain present in New Zealand. But it provided new information – that four of the five cases reported in Wellington around the same time Dr Adu-Bobie fell ill involved a different strain of the disease. The fifth case was a similar strain but couldn’t be confirmed as the same one that infected Dr Adu-Bobie.

Dr Emrys also investigated concerns raised by Dr Adu-Bobie about Neisseria meningitidis being plated out on the bench at ESR (when material is scraped from a sample onto a dish). Handling frozen or liquid samples in this way creates a risk of infection and must only be done in a biological safety cabinet. Dr Emrys said this activity would breach standard laboratory practices, ESR’s safety procedures and its instructions to staff. The plating of solid samples is not considered to pose such a risk. 

However, he could not identify any supporting evidence that any laboratory worker performed this activity, and he was unable to draw any conclusions about these concerns.

Dr Emrys said despite being unable to identify the cause of the infection his advice was that there were no grounds for the department to revisit the case.

He acknowledged the investigation had been prolonged and difficult for both Dr Adu-Bobie and ESR.

“ESR has continued to be patient and cooperative through this process despite repeated questioning of an issue that has already been under extensive investigation. I acknowledge the suffering of Dr Adu-Bobie as a result of this terrible infection and her incredible reasonableness and fortitude in dealing with her current situation.”

A copy of his report has been sent to ESR and Dr Adu-Bobie, and will be posted on the department’s website so it can be read by scientists and laboratories involved in similar activities.

ENDS

For further information contact Frances Martin on 04 915 4090 or 0274 422141.
To the journalist: Please note that health and safety services, formerly referred to as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) should now be referred to as the Department of Labour.

Summary of Dr Emrys’ findings

The investigation review has confirmed:

Background information

In March 2005, a visiting specialist, Dr Jeannette Adu-Bobie contracted meningococcal disease while working at the ESR laboratory Kenepuru, in Porirua.

Dr Adu-Bobie has a PhD in microbiology and came to New Zealand to work at ESR’s Meningococcal Vaccine Antibody Testing Laboratory (MVATL). 

Dr Adu-Bobie had been in New Zealand only 20 days, and at ESR for about seven working days, at the time she contracted meningococcal septicaemia.  She was critically ill and required amputation of her legs, left arm and digits of her right hand. 

The original investigation into her case concluded that, based on the evidence available, “it was extremely unlikely the infection was lab-acquired”.

In February 2006, Dr Adu-Bobie presented a journal article to the department suggesting laboratory workers have a higher risk of infection.  In response the department agreed to look into this further. Dr Geraint Emrys, an occupational health specialist who joined the Department after the original investigation, was asked to review the original investigation and see if he could identify the source of her infection.