Anthrax attacks remain mystery

Health officials consider campaign to educate Americans about threat

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Puzzled investigators were conducting a second round of environmental testing in hopes of figuring out how a New York woman was infected with a deadly case of anthrax. Authorities examined suspicious packages and powders, including a letter whose postmark and handwriting raised concerns at the Treasury Department.

One month after the first anthrax case was confirmed, President Bush on Saturday called the anthrax threat ''a second wave of terrorist attacks upon our country.'' He said officials were learning day by day, and he urged people to look closely at their mail.

''Anthrax apparently can be transferred from one letter to another,'' he said in his weekly radio address.

Anthrax testing was under way at 259 postal facilities, mostly on the East Coast. Officials awaited results from 21 post offices where testing was complete.

The biological attack has killed four people and infected 13 others. Concentrated along the East Coast, anthrax has been found in Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team of epidemiologists to Arizona, where the World Series was concluding, a precaution often taken when large crowds are expected. CDC officials considered a public service campaign to educate Americans about anthrax.

In Alaska, postal officials decided volunteers could answer some 60,000 letters to Santa expected in the tiny town of North Pole -- population 1,570 -- despite the anthrax scare. (See related story, Anthrax scare won't stop letters to Santa from being answered.)

''We're not going to let it spoil their Christmas,'' said Nancy Cain Schmitt, Alaska spokeswoman for the Postal Service.

Health authorities, who now believe that a New Jersey accountant was infected through the mail, said postal customers should keep an eye out for symptoms of anthrax. The skin form resembles a spider bite at first; the more serious inhalation anthrax, thought unable to be transmitted through regular mail, looks like flu.

''We've never said the risk of handling the mail is zero. It's minimal but it's not zero,'' said Lisa Swernarki of the CDC.

Doctors also must be on the look out, said New Jersey's top health official. ''Maybe you have to think about the possibility of anthrax with all your patients, not just postal staff,'' Acting Health Commissioner Dr. George T. DiFerdinando said Saturday.

The president, too, urged caution. Bush said the government is working to swiftly test post offices and other sites for spores and reassured Americans that the odds of receiving a piece of tainted mail are ''very low.''

''But still, people should take appropriate precautions. Look carefully at your mail before opening it, tell your doctor if you believe you may have been exposed to anthrax,'' he said.

In New York, investigators have not determined how Kathy T. Nguyen contracted inhalation anthrax. Nguyen, who died last week, was never able to tell them where she had been or who she had seen.

Initial testing for anthrax at her Bronx apartment and at the Manhattan hospital where she worked have come back negative. But CDC officials said they were beginning another round in the most promising sites and expanding to other places where she might have been.

The first round was ''a very rapid sampling'' of the most promising spots, said the CDC's Dr. Bradley Perkins, a lead investigator on the anthrax case.

CDC officials also were looking for patterns in the 10 inhalation anthrax victims. They said victims have been older than one would expect, given the age of all those at risk of exposure. It may be that it is easier for the anthrax to lodge into older people's respiratory systems, Perkins said.

In Washington, Treasury Department officials isolated a suspicious letter and sent it for testing. The letter bore the same Trenton, N.J., postmark as anthrax-laced mail delivered in New York and Washington. Officials said the address was also handwritten. Similar envelopes were recovered from Sen. Tom Daschle's office in Washington and from anchor Tom Brokaw's office at NBC.

''We have no indication that it is dangerous in any way, but we're having it tested,'' Treasury Department spokeswoman Michele Davis said.

At least two apartments have been searched, the latest Friday, and three people detained in neighborhoods near the Trenton-area post office that is the only known source for the anthrax contamination.

The FBI maintains investigators have found no direct link between the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the anthrax poisonings and the apartment raids. But information that led agents there was developed during the massive search for who mailed the contaminated letters, authorities said.

Authorities would say little about the search or about a man taken into custody Friday. He was identified as Allah Rakha by his brother, Ilyas Chaudry.

Authorities were finalizing plans to decontaminate the Senate Hart Office Building, where the powerful Daschle letter was opened. They planned to announce final approval Sunday of their plan to fill the nine-story building with bacteria-killing chlorine dioxide gas.

Across the country, officials have been checking out suspicious powders and letters, the vast majority of which have been found harmless. Still, authorities emphasize they are taking every report seriously and warn would-be pranksters they will be punished for any anthrax hoaxes.

Just outside Washington, authorities found a plastic bag of white powder on the dashboard of an unlocked car in Bethesda, Md. Initial field tests indicated it might be anthrax, but these tests often are unreliable and officials awaited further testing.



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