January 12, 1998
Volume 50, No. 16
Yerkes 'family' pulled together after death of young researcher from rare Herpes B infection
The Emory community was stunned to hear of the death of Yerkes Center Research Assistant Beth Griffin Dec. 10 due to complications from the Herpes B virus. But well before this tragic story broke in local news outlets, colleagues at Yerkes learned about her struggle with the rare disease and received frequent updates about her status, said Kate Egan, Yerkes public relations director. (The University attempted to withhold Griffin's name and other personal details at the request of her family, but both were widely publicized in television and newspaper accounts.)
In late December, another Yerkes employee was hospitalized for monitoring and testing for the Herpes B infection. Physicians found no evidence of infection; she was released returned to work. As a precaution, doctors will continue to evaluate her over the next several months.
What has happened at Yerkes since Griffin's death? Colleagues have been devastated by the illness and death of their friend and co-worker. She was released and returned to work.
"This was the most profoundly sad moment of my Yerkes career of 27 years," Associate Director for Scientific Programs Tom Gordon said at a press conference held shortly after her death. He added that Yerkes has never before experienced a work-related death or even an injury beyond the occasional bites and scratches.
"The illness [was] an agonizing experience for family, friends and co-workers, but most of all for [Griffin] who experienced periods of improvement followed by stunning reversals and deterioration," Director Tom Insel wrote to his staff. "It is especially tragic and difficult to accept this death despite the intense, dedicated and skillful medical care provided around the clock.
Rare disease, unusual circumstances
Since the Herpes B virus was first discovered in humans some 65 years ago, the focus has been on avoiding scratches and bites. This is the first reported case in which the virus was assumed to have been transmitted through the eye and after such a limited exposure.
The infection appears to have resulted from a minor fluid exposure to Griffin's eye while helping move a caged rhesus monkey. At the time, she considered this exposure inconsequential and did not report it. She recalled it later when conjunctivitis developed in the eye that had been splashed.
According to Carl Perlino, Griffin's doctor and an infectious disease specialist, she was treated with antiviral therapy, appeared to improve and was released. Her treatment continued on an outpatient basis, then she was readmitted with more severe symptoms. Six weeks after the iitial exposure, she died.
The Herpes B virus occurs naturally in rhesus and other macaque monkeys, the most common non-human primates used in research. The animals were not experimentally infected, rather Herpes B occurs naturally in them. Great apes and other types of primates besides macaques-including all the animals lent by Yerkes to the Atlanta Zoo-don't carry Herpes B.
While common in adult macaque monkeys, infection with the Herpes B virus is extraordinarily rare in humans. Approximately 40 cases have been reported worldwide since 1933 (none in Georgia). The virus is not airborne. The vast majority of human cases were the result of bites or scratches to researchers or those involved with animal care. But even that's a measure of how uncommon human infection is, since macaque monkeys inflict literally thousands of bites and scratches on humans each year.
"We have put forth every effort to investigate what happened in this instance and to consider how we might handle things differently in the future given what we now know," Gordon said. Emory administrators have asked for and are receiving help from outside organizations. When Herpes B was first suspected, Perlino called an expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as clinicians who had treated some of the more recent cases nationwide.
Yerkes officers began notifying government and other agencies concerned with animals. Soon after Griffin's death, a team arrived from the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency assigned to help with guidelines for worker safety. The agency's presence is routine any time a work-related death or serious injury takes place.
Yerkes instructs its employees regarding the risks of Herpes B in training and orientation sessions. But while the center further reviews precautions, employees have been given eye protection for use at all times, including those situations previously viewed as low risk, and all employees who work with animals have received a medical alert card with information on the Herpes B virus and relevant phone numbers.
Protesters use incident for publicity
In an unfortunate coincidence of timing, animal rights protesters were on campus the week before Griffin died. After her death, protesters used the occasion as an opportunity to criticize Yerkes.
The University issued the following statement: "This heroic young woman chose to work with animals at a research institution committed to finding answers to benefit mankind. We are dismayed that her death should be used by protesters for their own, very different agenda. We do not believe this display is fair to her grieving family, and it insults her Yerkes colleagues whose work she shared and who are in anguish over her loss."
A campuswide memorial service for Griffin was held Thursday, Dec. 11 in Cannon Chapel. Yerkes has been looking at ways to honor this young woman. During the holidays, employees at the field station where she worked donated "Toys for Tots" in her honor and asked that administrative funds ordinarily used for a holiday party be used instead to honor their colleague. Insel is considering adding these funds to others to create a summer student fellowship in her name that would benefit other young researchers.