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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Associated Press, October 9, 2001.

Florida case doesn't fit terrorism profile

By Joseph B. Verrengia / Associated Press

Health experts say the Florida anthrax cases (case 5 and case 7) traced to the newsroom of a supermarket tabloid do not fit the classic bioterrorism scenario and the public should not especially fear for its safety while the FBI continues its investigation.

Among the major questions to be answered: Where did it come from? How was it spread? And, why has only one person died?

"There are things about this case that I find rather strange," said Donald A. Henderson, a biodefense expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "If you put them all together, they don't add up."

Anthrax is one of a handful of microbes turned into biological weapons designed to infect and kill large populations. A treaty signed by 143 nations bans their use. But U.S. officials have long feared that extremists might grow a large batch and release anthrax spores on unsuspecting, innocent people -- fears that have become acute since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

National health experts said the FBI investigation was "appropriate," but doesn't necessarily mean it was the work of terrorists.

"If you had a large release (of anthrax spores), you wouldn't see just one case," said Bruce Clements, associate director of St. Louis University's Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections. "We would see quite a few cases."

"Anthrax is so persistent," he said. "If somebody let aerosolized anthrax loose in the air system of that building, it will still be there."

Health experts said "it would be prudent" to treat workers in the Sun building, as well as any visitors, messengers, delivery people and service workers who went there in the past two months. Family and friends who were not physically there would not need treatment because anthrax cannot be passed from person to person.

The CDC has identified two antibiotics -- Cipro and doxycycline -- to treat anthrax.

"You want to treat people before they show symptoms," Clements said.

In the past century, most people who have contracted inhaled anthrax worked in mills and were processing goat hides that carried the spores.

A slower, noninhaled infection can be contracted by eating anthrax-infected meat -- almost eliminated now with modern food safety standards.

Anthrax spores live in the soil in areas where livestock graze. Humans can develop slower, treatable anthrax infections in the skin if soil-borne spores contaminate a cut or abrasion.