Anthrax Claims a Fourth Life
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, October 31, 2001 (ENS) - A fourth person has died of inhalation anthrax, and in this puzzling new case, there seems to be no link to anthrax contaminated post offices or mailrooms. Authorities fear the victim, a 61 year old woman who worked at a New York City hospital, could point to previously unknown targets of anthrax attacks.
Kathy Nguyen, who worked as a supply clerk at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, died of inhalational anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. Hers is the first case in which authorities have not been able to pinpoint the sources of the anthrax spores which caused the infection.
No traces of anthrax have yet been found at the hospital where Nguyen worked, which was closed Tuesday as a precaution. More than 700 hospital employees, patients and visitors have been tested for anthrax exposure.
This morning on NBC's "Today" show, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that "all bets are off " in this case, and health officials are scrambling to learn where Nguyen may have been exposed.
The New York case is "much more perplexing" than another new case, in which a New Jersey businesswoman has developed the cutaneous, or skin, version of anthrax, again without a known source of contamination.
The woman, who works near a Hamilton Township post office that has confirmed anthrax contamination, "could have gotten a letter, possibly, that was cross contaminated," explained Fauci.
There have now been 16 confirmed cases of anthrax since a journalist died in Florida of inhalation anthrax last month. Two postal workers in Washington, DC died earlier this month of the same form of the disease.
A State Department contractor who worked with bulk mail is still in the hospital in Sterling, Virginia, in serious but stable condition with inhalation anthrax.
Before the most recent cases were confirmed, all confirmed anthrax cases could be traced back to one of several anthrax contaminated letters sent to media outlets and government officials through the U.S. mail. But because no clear connection between the known letters and the New York and New Jersey cases has been found, officials now fear that anthrax spores could be being spread by other means - or by U.S. mail to private citizens.
"That is being intensively investigated right now," Fauci said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, told reporters today that the U.S. postal system is not "for all times, for all purposes, forever risk free."
However, Ridge emphasized that since the first anthrax case last month, "there have been 25 plus billion pieces of mail out there and one possible contamination," and "you ought to open your mail, and you ought to use the postal system."
At a Senate hearing on mail safety, Postmaster General John Potter said the U.S. Postal Service may need "several billion dollars" to clean up contaminated post offices and install new security measures.
Two post offices in the Washington DC area reopened today after minute amounts of anthrax spores were removed and the sites were decontaminated.
But the Hart Senate Office, where Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle received a letter filled with millions of potent anthrax spores, remains closed. Health officials are now planning to pump chlorine dioxide gas into the building to sterilize it, which should allow senators to return to work in the building by mid-November.
Health officials are still performing environmental testing at postal facilities along the East Coast, and prophylactic antibiotics have been given to thousands of postal workers, hospital employees, media representatives and others. Emergency rooms and other medical facilities are on alert for symptoms of anthrax infection.
The anthrax used in the attacks can be defeated by several antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin and doxycycline. Efforts are underway to develop new and better ways to combat the disease, and several drug companies are seeking government funding for research not only on anthrax, but also on other potential bioterrorism weapons, including smallpox.