Hygienic Laboratory IDs salmonella


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Dressed in white lab coats and purple latex gloves, University of Iowa microbiologists worked laboriously to locate and identify some of the smallest organisms on the planet.

Scientists at the UI Hygenic Laboratory search for potentially dangerous pathogens on a daily basis.
The lab most recently identified a major outbreak of salmonella, which affected 233 people in 44 states.

Michael Pentella, the lab’s associate director for environmental health, said the discovery took a lot of hard work and a little luck.

“It was a fortunate set of circumstances that it was found,” he said.

While identifying the presence of disease for the state of Iowa is one task of the Hygienic Laboratory, it is not the only one.

The facility is also the home of the Iowa Metabolic Newborn Screening Program, which tests most babies born in the state for health disorders.

The lab also works with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency to test for contaminants in Iowa’s air and water supplies, said Pat Blake, the public-information officer for the lab.

“The thing people don’t often realize is we are the laboratory for the entire state,” said Blake. The Hygienic Laboratory has facilities in Ankeny and near West Lake Okoboji.

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While discovering infectious diseases, screening babies, and testing water samples can be difficult, Pentella said the biggest challenge in the business is the workforce shortage. The Association of Schools of Public Health expects that Iowa will be short 4,250 public-health employees by 2020.

This is due in large part to expected retirees in the field, Blake said.

A well-qualified and devoted faculty is required to stay on top of disease analysis and intervention, Pentella said. Even when a discovery has been made, the work never stops.

“There’s always something,” Pentella said. “It’s hard to predict when it will be, so you have to remain vigilant, prepared to do all kinds of testing because you don’t know what might be coming down the plank.”

While the work is constant, Nancy Hall, Hygienic Laboratory supervisor in environmental microbiology, said helping discover a disease such as Salmonella Montevideo is a great feeling.

“Any time you can help a national investigation, that’s pretty awesome,” she said.

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