Tulane’s primate center euthanizes two monkeys

Brandi Doyal, Print News Editor

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The Tulane National Primate Research Center discovered that two monkeys were ill in November and euthanized one monkey Nov. 27 and a second monkey Friday. The Center conducted extensive tests that proved the animals had a Burkholderia pseudomallei infection.

Burkholderia pseudomallei is a bacteria that causes melioidosis. Melioidosis exists in both acute and chronic forms, and symptoms include chest, bone and joint pains, skin infections and pneumonia. The second monkey recovered from the infection, but its health continued to deteriorate, according to a Community Advisory Board update posted on the center’s website.

Director Andrew Lackner said the animals were euthanized for welfare concerns.

“The emphasis is on the health and welfare of all the animals, and so in this instance one animal was euthanized because there were concerns about its clinical condition fairly early on,” Lackner said. “The second animal had been treated and recovered, but was in declining health. It didn’t make a lot of sense to try and do fairly extraordinary things to keep the animal around.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist was thought to have been infected with the Burkholderia pseudomallei at the center and was released from the hospital Feb. 8. The name of the scientist was not released because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. 

Mike Strecker, Tulane’s executive director of public relations, said the scientist had likely been infected with the bacteria before she came to Tulane.

“Follow-up testing by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] of the USDA scientist previously identified as having been exposed to Burkholderia pseudomallei revealed indications that the scientist’s exposure to Burkholderia pseudomallei occurred prior to her visit to the TNPRC,” Strecker said. “Before coming to the Primate Center she visited areas of the world where Burkholderia pseudomallei is endemic in the soil.”

As of right now, Lackner said that neither the primate center nor the CDC know what initially caused the infection. The only link between the monkeys is that they were all visiting the veterinary hospital at the same time. Since then, the veterinary hospital has been thoroughly disinfected, and further testing is ongoing.

“We don’t really know, but we think it was a nosocomial infection, which means hospital inquired,” Lackner said. “How that happened, we are still trying to figure it out. With all the controls and measures set up, it shouldn’t happen.”

In another CAB update on Tuesday the center released a statement.

“The absence of Burkholderia pseudomallei in more than 50 environmental samples (air, water and soil) and data pointing to the animal infections occurring in the veterinary hospital makes it increasingly unlikely that Burkholderia pseudomallei has been in our outdoor breeding colony. Monitoring of the animals in the breeding colony will continue.”

Lackner said this is the first time the center has experienced an infection of this kind, despite the fact that the center has been doing infectious disease work for more than 30 years, including research on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

“[We focus] on how diseases operate and using that information to figure out how to make vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tests to help both humans and animals,” Lackner said.

Lackner said that no public health risk exists and that the center was working to prevent future incidents.

“There has been a lot more testing and environmental tests done to make sure the organism isn’t around and to protect people,” Lackner said. “They turned out negative. The comments from the CDC and the parish president said that there is not a human health risk or a public health risk from this at all.”