Government Conference to Study Deadly Infections

By GARDINER HARRIS  February 11, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 2006: The federal government has called an unusual scientific conference to look into two related bacterial infections, one that killed four California women who took an abortion pill and the other that has caused outbreaks of diarrhea and colitis in hospitals and nursing homes across the nation.

Fifteen to 20 scientists who have studied the two bacteria have been asked to present their research at the conference, scheduled for May 11, an official at the Food and Drug Administration said Friday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the abortion pill, Mifeprex or RU-486 [and it's sidekick Misoprostol], is so controversial that some officials have been threatened after speaking about it publicly.

Security at the conference will be unusually tight, the official said. It will be held in an auditorium at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Attendees must register by April 15. The National Institutes of Health will also participate in the conference, according to a federal register notice.

Officials are concerned that the political controversy swirling around medical abortions may interfere with the scientific discussion, the F.D.A. official said in an interview.

"We hope to keep the focus on the science," the official said. "We're holding this in a secure government facility for a reason."

The two bacteria are Clostridium sordellii and Clostridium difficile, which generally live in the soil and in human intestinal tracts. Both thrive in environments with limited oxygen. When these bacteria infect the bloodstream, they can produce a toxin that causes something akin to toxic shock syndrome.

People infected with Clostridium sordellii, the one that caused the RU-486 deaths, often fail to understand their peril until too late in part because the infections often do not produce fevers.

The F.D.A. has added strong warnings to the drug's label, describing the dangers of the bacteria. But officials say that they have no idea whether Mifeprex makes patients vulnerable to such infections.

Another intriguing mystery is why all four lethal Clostridium sordellii infections occurred in California.

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