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The case of the Xerox repairman

A Xerox repairman supplied a clue — indeed was a clue — in detecting a medical hazard. Mark Pendergrast‘s book Inside Outbreaks explains:

In April 1973 the New York State epidemiologist, EIS alum Alan Hinman, called the CDC for help. In early March, a second-year resident in radiation therapy at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY, had come down with a high fever, chills, sore throat, nausea, muscle aches, and photophobia (aversion to light). In the next five weeks, seven similar illnesses occurred in radiation department staff and those who cared for experimental lab animals.

EIS officer David Fraser joined Hinman. They bled the victims and a selection of hamsters, mice, rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits. Awaiting the laboratory results, they interviewed staff and reviewed medical records, identifying a total of 23 apparent cases. All but five victims worked in the radiation department. Three of the five were animal handlers. One was a plumber who worked all over the hospital, and the last was a Xerox machine repairman.

The repairman gave the disease detectives their best clue. He had serviced the photocopy machine in the animal-holding room on March 16, 1973, then fallen ill on April 4. To reach the machine, he had walked down a narrow passage flanked by cages of rabbits and hamsters, subjects of x-ray experiments on implanted tumors.

Fraser and Hinman asked radiation department staff how frequently each used the Xerox machine. Those who copied the most documents were most likely to have become ill, probably because they had inhaled a virus as they walked past infected animals.

Subsequent laboratory results confirmed an outbreak of lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM) among Syrian golden hamsters and the medical staff. The LCM virus was found in frozen samples as far back as 1961 from the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, which provided hamster tumors to researchers across the country.

Nine months later, a nationwide LCM epidemic occurred, transmitted by pet hamsters raised by a part-time breeder who worked for the Southern Research Institute. He had probably started his colony with infected hamsters he had liberated from his workplace.

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