U.S. and Kenya Clash Over Anthrax Tainted Mail

By Jennifer Wanjiru

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25, 2001 (ENS) - Kenya and the United States are locked in a war of words over whether a parcel sent to a Kenyan doctor actually contained anthrax spores.

While the United States insists that the Kenyan letter did not contain anthrax, Kenyan doctors say it does.

On October 18, Kenya's Minister for Public Health, Professor Sam Ongeri, confirmed that one of the three items sent in the mail to Nairobi "tested positive for anthrax by stain and smear."

But the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says that "further tests" on the powder "had re-tested negative for anthrax."


Anthrax bacteria (Photo courtesy Society for Applied Microbiology)
In Kenya's parliament, Ongeri today confirmed his earlier position. "We stand by the decision and we are currently studying the subculture to determine the type," he said.

The controversial parcel, one of 43 parcels examined by the Nairobi based Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), was sent to neurologist Dr. Samuel Mwinzi of Nairobi Hospital by his daughter who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. It contained cloth samples and a polythene envelope in which was white powder.

"It was in this powder that anthrax spores were found," insists Professor Ongeri.

The argument comes at a time when anthrax contaminated mail has been received at media outlets and government offices and has contaminated mail processing facilities in the United States.

The Kenyan letters are the first such case outside the United States since the September 11 airplane attacks on New York and Washington sparked fears of global bio-terrorism.

Tests on the suspicious mail carried out in Nairobi by experts from the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) attached to KEMRI did not detect any anthrax spores.

"After further testing of the Nairobi sample with technical advice from CDC and [U.S.] embassy medical staff, the initial positive result cannot be replicated or confirmed. We now consider the sample to be negative for anthrax", says U.S. Embassy spokesman, Peter Claussen.

But Kenyan doctors and government officials say this is not true. "We have made our position clear on this issue. Laboratories can disagree, but our view hasn't changed," says Director of Medical Services Dr. Richard Muga.

"I have seen the slides and they showed spores; what we call bacillus," said Dr. Muga.


Testing for contaminants at Nairobi Hospital (Photo courtesy Nairobi Hospital)
Another test on the powder carried out by Nairobi Hospital, a leading private hospital in Nairobi, also tested positive for anthrax.

Professor Ongeri told the media in Nairobi today that the affected letter "showed the presence of anthrax, similar to culture colonies found in cattle."

One of the parcels that tested negative had been sent to the communications and public information office of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi. Another had been sent to the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Joab Omino.

"There are so many hoaxes in town. People are taking advantage of the situation to scare their enemies with salt, ground chalk and maize flour," says Charles Njuguna, a clinician at the Ministry of Health's anthrax secretariat.

Anthrax is endemic in Kenya with the majority of cases occurring in the drylands where pastoralism is the way of life. Doctors say they are prepared to deal with the issue.

"Anthrax is a fairly ordinary organism, and we have the necessary personnel, lab equipment, reagents and know-how to test and document it," says Dr. Gabriel Mbugua, Kemri's director for microbiology research.