Anthrax Scare

NEW YORK, New York, October 12, 2001 (ENS) - Information that mail contaminated with the anthrax bacteria had been received at two media organizations in New York was released today. An employee at the NBC News center at Rockefeller Plaza and another at the New York Times received or handled the infectious mail.

Another envelope possibly contaminated with anthrax was discovered today in Reno, Nevada.

At the Times, a package or a letter was delivered to reporter Judith Miller, the author of many New York Times articles and a number of books on biological warfare and Islamic fundamentalists.

Testing done at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) along with clinical diagnosis found the NBC employee has cutaneous anthrax, a bacterial infection of the skin. The source of the anthrax exposure is being investigated but CDC officials say it is possible that it may have occurred when an envelope was opened on September 25 that may have contained material contaminated with the spore-form of anthrax. Selected areas of 30 Rockefeller Plaza have been closed and environmental samples are being taken.

The patient has been treated with antibiotics and is doing well, the agency said. Her name was not released, but she was exposed to the type of anthrax that is contracted through the skin, the same type that showed up at Miller's desk.

This is different from the type of anthrax inhaled by a man in Boca Raton, Florida who died last Friday. He was an employee of American Media Inc., which publishes supermarket tabloids including the "Globe" and the "Sun." His computer keyboard was contaminated with the deadly bacteria.

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Spores of anthrax bacteria (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
No previous case of inhalational anthrax has been reported in the United States since 1978, according to the American Medical Association, making even a single case a cause for alarm today. Only 18 cases have been reported in the United States in this century.

In Nevada, state health officials are analyzing a letter received by a Microsoft business in the Reno area that appeared suspicious to employees. As of this afternoon, contents of the letter had tested "presumptively positive" for anthrax.

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn said, "This is a national issue that involves law enforcement at all levels. The FBI has kept me well informed as these situations have evolved."

Officials warn that letters without a return address, empty envelopes, powder spills once an envelope is opened should raise suspicion. These envelopes should be placed in a ziplock bag. Wash hands immediately. The local health department and law enforcement agencies should be contacted immediately.

These are the precautions suggested to prevent infection with the cutaneous form of anthrax which occurs following the deposit of the organism into skin with previous cuts or abrasions especially susceptible to infection.

"If you come in contact with powder that spills out of the envelope, wash your hands, but do not attempt to clean powder up from the immediate area or brush off your clothes. Make a list of all people who may have come in contact with the powder and give to local public health authorities," Governor Guinn instructed.

Anthrax is a disease caused by bacteria (Bacillus anthracis). It can cause disease if enough of the bacteria is inhaled, ingested or introduced into an open cut or wound. A vaccine is available and is given to military personnel assigned now or rotating to high threat areas. The vaccine is produced from a strain of anthrax that does not cause disease. The vaccine contains no whole bacteria, dead or alive, according to the Department of Defense.

If inhaled, the disease may characteristically begin with mild flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, fever, fatigue and slight cough between one and six days after exposure. The disease may then progress after two to four days to more severe symptoms such as high fever and shortness of breath.

Anthrax is generally treatable with antibiotics and is not contagious from one person to another, health officials agree.

The threat of a bioterrorist assault with anthrax has now moved to the top of the public's fear list. Already considered a real possibility by many in the medical community, the American Medical Association (AMA), says physicians serve as America's early warning system by being alert to unusual illnesses and questioning the severity of symptoms in their patients.

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Anthrax vaccine (Photo by Joe Parker courtesy U.S. Navy)
The association of doctors has prepared a consensus statement on anthrax from its Working Group on Civilian Biodefense, composed of 21 representatives from the staffs of major academic medical centers and research, government, military, public health, and emergency management institutions and agencies.

The working group identified a limited number of organisms that could cause disease and deaths in sufficient numbers to cripple a city or region. "Anthrax is one of the most serious of these diseases," it said.

Today, at least 17 nations are believed to have offensive biological weapons programs; it is uncertain how many are working with anthrax. Iraq has acknowledged producing and weaponizing anthrax, the physicians working group says.

To develop a maximally effective response to a bioterrorist incident involving anthrax, the working group says, "the medical community will require new knowledge of the organism, its genetics and pathogenesis, improved rapid diagnostic techniques, improved prophylactic and therapeutic regimens, and an improved second generation vaccine."

The federal Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that three types of antiobiotics are approved for anthrax: ciprofloxacin, tetracyclines, and penicillins. For people who have been exposed to anthrax but do not have symptoms, 60 days of one of these antibiotics is given to reduce the risk or progression of disease due to inhaled anthrax.

Under emergency plans, the federal government would ship appropriate antibiotics from its stockpile to wherever they are needed, the agency said.

Although the agency does not regulate the practice of medicine, it is recommending that physicians not prescribe Cipro for individual patients to have on hand for possible use against inhaled anthrax. "In addition to the potential influence on supply of the drug, indiscriminate prescribing and widespread use of Cipro could hasten the development of drug resistant organisms," the agency said.

Anthrax fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/anthrax_g.htm

U.S. Postal Service tips on dealing with mail suspected of contamination: http://www.usps.com/news/2001/press/pr01_1010tips.htm