Disease testing delayed after Alaska lab damaged in quake

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) A state health lab was damaged in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck south-central Alaska, delaying scientists' ability to test for tuberculosis, botulism and other dangerous diseases.

The Nov. 30 quake damaged 13 of the Anchorage facility's secure testing rooms, forcing staff to send bacteria samples to labs in California and Washington state, the Anchorage Daily News reported this week.

Germ-resistant walls made from layers of fiberglass cracked during the quake. The specialized walls help protect lab scientists from getting infected while conducting tests, said Bernd Jilly, chief of Alaska State Public Health Laboratories.

Staff members are working to decontaminate the damaged rooms a process that takes two days for each room, Jilly said. Doors have been sealed with plastic and tape, so hydrogen peroxide can be pumped in to kill microbes.

The lab needs about $200,000 in repairs, and it's uncertain when the rooms will be fixed, Jilly said. The building is considered "critical infrastructure," so the state has placed it at the top of the repair list, he said.

While the testing delays do not present an "acute danger" to public health, the slowdown complicates the facility's goal of protecting against highly infectious diseases, Jilly said. Some doctors are not able to quickly get results needed to properly treat and prevent illnesses.

Final test results for tuberculosis and botulism are faced with weeklong delays, Jilly said.

"Patients are left in limbo for longer than they need to be left in limbo," Jilly said. "There's a double-edged sword in this unknown period of time, and the shorter you can make that period of time, the better it is for the individual, the community and the whole health care system."

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Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com

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