Lab Worker Infected With Smallpox-Related Virus

Allison Aulds

October 31, 2019

A laboratory worker in San Diego, CA, infected herself with a smallpox-related virus after she accidentally pricked her finger during an experiment.

The 26-year-old was injecting a mouse with the vaccinia virus (VACV) in 2018 when the needle pierced her skin, according to a new case report from the CDC.

She immediately washed her hands and went to the hospital. But within a few weeks, her fever spiked and her fingertip started to swell and turn black. Concerned, health care workers contacted the CDC and gave the woman several treatments, under the agency’s supervision, to bring the swelling down.

Thankfully, the treatments helped, but it took more than 3 months for her finger to go back to normal.

Investigators say the worker had been briefed on the risks of working with the virus and was offered a vaccine to prevent it, but she declined to get it. Later, the woman told health officials that when she was offered the vaccine, she didn’t understand how powerful the virus could be.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that lab workers be vaccinated against smallpox before working with certain viruses.

Symptoms of smallpox include a high fever, body aches, nausea, a contagious rash, and sores that scab over. While antiviral drugs may help treat the disease, or keep it from getting worse, the best way to avoid it is by getting vaccinated, the CDC says.

Smallpox was eliminated in 1980, according to the World Health Assembly, and there hasn’t been an outbreak in the U.S. since 1949 due to vaccination efforts, says the CDC. Because of that, the general public is no longer vaccinated against it.

Despite its elimination, scientists still study the virus and develop vaccines to protect people in the event that it’s used as a weapon. Health officials say bioterrorism — the intentional release of a virus, or germ, that can hurt or kill people — is unlikely, but still something they need to be prepared for.