RBANA – A student lab worker was infected with cowpox last year at the University of Illinois, but is fine now. This is the first U.S. case, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Cowpox is a disease that used to be common among milkmaids, and is much less severe than smallpox.
The chief spokesman for the Urbana campus, Robin Kaler, said that the incident was isolated and that steps are being taken that will prevent further infection.
Kaler said privacy requirements prevented her from specifying the age or gender of the worker, who noticed an infected cut in early July 2010 that produced a small lesion.
She said the worker didn't make a connection with a lab danger and waited several days before going to the McKinley Health Center.
The student "thought it may have happened in a swimming pool," Kaler said.
When McKinley health workers couldn't identify the infection, they called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
"Within six weeks of the infection, the worker's cut had completely healed. By November, the investigation determined that the infection was caused by cowpox virus and the source had likely been the lab where the worker was employed," Kaler said.
Other animals, including rats, can spread the infection, according to the CDC.
"Cowpox virus is not highly infective for humans and usually produces a localized lesion mainly on fingers, hands, or face. In immunocompromised persons, however, the disease may lead to death," according to a CDC web site.
The virus infects through skin abrasions, it adds.
Kaler said the exact method of transmission was not known, but several preventive steps have been taken, including thorough retraining of all lab staff.
The campus also has taken steps to improve use of biological materials, including using sealed wraps, more frequent wiping down and decontamination of lab surfaces, and wearing gloves even when removing materials from the freezer.
Kaler said the story has popped up now because it was mentioned in a scientific paper.