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Don't monkey around with lab animal safety

By Sarah A. Perry
Arizona Daily Wildcat
December 8, 1998
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In an effort to prevent the spread of diseases, the UA has begun implementing tougher safety standards for employees and students who work with laboratory animals.

The revised animal safety codes, known collectively as the Occupational Health/Animal Hazard Program, are designed to educate all students, researchers and caretakers about how to handle laboratory and farm animals safely.

The federally mandated program will train anyone working with or around animals and screen them for diseases.

Michael Cusanovich, University of Arizona vice president for research, said the new program will apply to between 700 and 1,000 students, staff and faculty who work with animals, compared with the 30 staff members previously included.

"A lot of kids in the undergraduate program do research in the medical school - they work with animals," Cusanovich said.

The safety program applies to students working on independent studies and thesis work, in addition to researchers and faculty who work with animals, he said.

Researchers and caretakers must submit to a preliminary wellness examination, which can be used compare changes in health if they are bitten, scratched or stung by an animal.

The program also requires basic vaccinations, such as tetanus and rabies, for some workers.

"If we have a health history on you, we can treat changes," Cusanovich said.

The program was mandated by the federal government to ensure the safety of both people and animals, he said.

"The fed(eral government) goes with a zero tolerance, zero risk model," Cusanovich said. "It's more preventative than anything else."

Those who work with animals must fill out a survey to determine which safety precautions they should take.

"A lot of people will fill out the survey and be told they don't have to do anything," Cusanovich said. "But we won't know until we know what's being done with our animals."

Dr. Michael Rand, animal hazard program supervisor, said animal workers will be placed in one of three risk categories.

"It goes by the animal species they'll be working with (as to) what danger level they're in," Rand said.

There will be a designated "safety person" for each lab, and that person will receive the bulk of the training, he said.

"The training is a series of 1- to 2-hour classes, depending on what category of risk you fall into," Rand said.

In addition, the safety person will be required to assess his own lab on a regular basis to ensure it is safe. Rand said since the program does not aim to be intrusive, it will not send inspectors to verify that the guidelines are followed.

"It is incumbent upon each faculty member to take this program upon themselves," Rand said.

He added that the program was intended to give each department the know-how and information to keep within the guidelines itself.

"We don't have a policing program," Rand said.

A safety person must be named in every research proposal. If the person has not completed the required training, the research will be suspended.

For the past 30 years, the UA only required University Animal Care Department caretakers to adhere to specific safety standards.

"It was up to the individual research labs as to what they were going to do to protect their personnel," said Dr. Susan Sanders, director of the University Animal Care Department.

The program has extended the requirements, in accordance with federal regulations, to include any students or researchers in any department who come into contact with animals or animal tissues.

Federal policy requires any facility that does animal work to adhere to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The recently revised guide was written by the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources, a division of the National Research Council.

"It lays out the description," Sanders said, "But it's up to the individual institution as to how they carry it out."

The Guide requires an Animal Care and Use Committee to make sure animal experiments are conducted humanely.

The UA's committee members, who are appointed by the vice president for research, monitor animal research to make sure the guidelines are followed.

"Fines are levied when (procedures are) not adhered to," Rand said.

The committee will also be in charge of fining departments that do not comply with the safety standards.

The UA's program will include training on prevention and safety precautions, such as education on diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

For instance, biology students working on field experiments run the risk of contracting Hanta Virus Pulmonary Syndrome, which is carried by rodents. Hanta has never been a problem at the UA, but Sanders said it is possible.

"In California, in 1993-94, there were some faculty members who actually died because no preventative measures were taken," she said. "This is rare, but it happens."

It's not uncommon for lab workers to be bitten by animals.

Cusanovich said UA has had a number of incidents, such as minor scratches and bites, that required treatment.

But without proper safety measures, the results could be more serious, he said.

"Two to three (people) worldwide die each year from working with animals," Cusanovich said.

Sanders said there are several research institutions in which the students do not receive preliminary shots and, if attacked, require serious treatment.

But under the new program, UA students and researchers will be safer if bitten or scratched.

"We would just need a booster - or nothing at all," Sanders said.

She added that the Animal Hazard Program also keeps animals safe, since certain human diseases and viruses are transmittable to animals.

"Monkeys are very susceptible to measles - we get measles vaccinations," Sanders said.

The program will also train workers how to deal with other medical conditions such as trauma and explain when to change clothes after exposure to animals, or when to wear protective clothing.

"We want to make sure that people who do things with animals know how to do it properly," she said.

Under the Animal Hazard Program, individuals, departments and colleges will not have to fund their own safety programs.

Sanders said it is too much of a burden on individual colleges to pay for careful animal safety programs.

"(We) didn't want for people not to do it because they didn't have the money," she said.

Under the new program, the UA Department for Research will pay the $100,000 to $200,000 annual cost for animal safety training and procedures.

Cusanovich said it should take a year or two to get everyone enrolled in the program.

"Our goal now is to get people aware of the program," he said.

Sarah A. Perry can be reached via e-mail at Sarah.A.Perry@wildcat.arizona.edu.