In Montana, 'Dr. Trout' battles the planet's most dangerous diseases

  • Andrea Marzi, foreground, and Barry Rockx, practicing techniques in "positive-pressure suits" during a training session in a Biosafety Level 4 research suite at Rocky Mountain Laboratories

    Rocky Mountain Laboratories
  • The main entry to Rocky Mountain Laboratories

    Rocky Mountain Laboratories
  • Disease researcher Marshall Bloom fishing on the Kootenai river

    Tim Linehan
  • Colorized electron micrograph of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (gold spheres, an infectious pathogen studied at Rocky Mountain Laboratories) destroying a white blood cell.

    Rocky Mountain Laboratories
  • Male (top) and female Rocky Mountain wood ticks, disease-carrying arachnids that led to the creation of Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

    Rocky Mountain Laboratories
  • Colorized electron micrograph of a cell invaded by Coxiella Burnetii bacteria (green spheres, the agent that causes the disease known as Q fever, co-discovered at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in the 1930s).

    Rocky Mountain Laboratories

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HCN: Is it risky for the public, having the labs in Hamilton? There was a concern when you went to Level 4, so I'm obliged to ask.

Bloom: Back around 1930, when the proposal was made to locate the lab here, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit saying it would be dangerous for the town. The judge threw it out, basically saying, “How can you say it's dangerous to have people studying these infectious diseases when the Bitterroot Valley is full of them? You're more at risk from walking up the (tick-infested) mountains around our valley than you are from the research in the laboratory.” When the Biosafety Level 4 lab was proposed, we had some rather ardent critics, but we were able to convince most of them by answering their questions about safety and security. Now most of them are strong supporters.

HCN: It seems to me that what the judge said back in the 1930s is still true, translated something like, “Today, the most remote jungles in the Congo are right outside Hamilton.”

Bloom: When I give talks to the Rotary or other clubs, whoever I'm talking to, I ask people in the audience, “How many of you have been to, or know someone who's been to South America fishing or on a vacation?” Usually a fair number of people raise their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you have been or know someone who's been to Africa or Southeast Asia in the last year? Or Central America?” By the time you get through asking those questions, probably more than 50 percent of any audience has hands in the air. We are no more than two stops (commercial jet transfers) away from most of the places on Earth. Say, Minneapolis (a Delta airlines hub for flights leaving Montana) to Amsterdam to Nairobi or Johannesburg. Or Seattle-Tokyo-Hong Kong, where SARS started. The incubation for these infectious diseases is longer than those plane rides. The movie Contagion captured this accurately -- a person could become infected with any of the diseases we mentioned earlier, get on a plane and get back to their home in Hamilton or anywhere else in the United States before they even realized they were infected.

HCN: So the risk of leakage from the lab is less than the average background risk everywhere now?

Bloom: We've been very lucky so far. The safety record at infectious disease labs in the United States and other countries with precautions like ours is absolutely exceptional. The people who work at Rocky Mountain Labs take their jobs very seriously, and we have very strict safety protocols. There's no such thing as a risk-free occupation, but I think with the training, education, diligence and commitment here, the probability of something happening is as remote as possible.

HCN: What do we need to be afraid of now?

Bloom: What we don't even know is out there. ... I think the biggest fear we should have in this country is the re-emergence of diseases that are preventable by vaccination.

HCN: You mean because of anxiety about vaccines, or because the vaccines are losing efficacy?

Bloom: In the 20th century before vaccines, the annual morbidity from measles around the world was 530,217 people. In 2011, there were 222 cases around the world. That's a greater than 99 percent reduction. However, in the United States and other parts of the world, people are not getting vaccinated, and when the level of vaccination in a population goes down, you lose what's called “herd immunity.” So we're now starting to see outbreaks of measles in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in places like Africa and South Africa where the infrastructure isn't good. A lot of that is based on faulty and thoroughly disproven ideas that vaccines are associated with conditions like autism. It's a public health tragedy. If measles comes back, that's a horribly serious disease. It's associated with encephalitis, and people who get that who are on chemotherapy or on steroids or have immune deficiencies, that's a horrible infection. ... In our area here, Ravalli County in Montana, we still have an outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough, caused by an infectious bacteria), ongoing from last year. There's a vaccine for that, which is way safer than getting the infection. A little baby in Idaho died from pertussis this year. People my age, if they haven't received a pertussis booster, are also potentially very susceptible. Pertussis in Ravalli County is particularly distressing, because the current pertussis vaccine, which is called TDAP, the basis for that vaccine was science done here at Rocky Mountain Labs during the 1980s. And yet, our state has one of the lowest levels of vaccination in the country.

HCN: Now we're getting into the realm of our completely dysfunctional politics, and intimidating dedicated scientists, and celebrating ignorance -- all of that stuff.

Bloom: Oh, is that happening?

HCN: Maybe we should end there.