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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, October 6, 2001.

Health officials seek clues in anthrax death

By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer

State and federal officials fanned out across Florida and parts of North Carolina Friday seeking clues to how a semi-retired photo editor could have contracted a fatal case of inhalation anthrax, a rare disease that has been considered a plausible biological warfare threat.

The man, Bob Stevens (case 5), 63, died of the illness Friday afternoon. Investigators were reviewing the medical records of other hospitalized patients in Florida to see if any might have gone undiagnosed with the disease. But Florida public health officials said Stevens' case appears to have been an isolated event, and there is no evidence that his illness was caused by an act of bioterrorism.

"We're following a whole bunch of leads. We're looking at everything," said Frank Penela, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. "We've got 50 local, state and federal investigators working on this. But there's nothing right now."

Anthrax is caused by a bacterium that lives in the soil and is carried on the hides and hair of some cattle, goats and sheep. The microbes can cause human disease when they come in contact with a person's skin, are consumed, or are inhaled. The inhaled form is especially deadly, and a few nations are known to have made warheads loaded with the deadly spores.

The disease is not contagious from person to person. Nonetheless, news of the single case late Wednesday prompted a panicky new round of demands for protective antibiotics from an already jittery American public.

One Manhattan pediatrician reported receiving 15 to 20 calls a day, and another reported getting five to 10 a day, despite reassurances from federal officials and advice from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Wednesday that people need not stock up. Although useful if taken soon after infection, antibiotics are typically of little use once symptoms arise.

Investigators Friday gathered soil samples from around Stevens' home in Lantana, Fla., and began to retrace the man's recent travels as part of their effort to understand how he may have contracted the disease. Only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax have been reported in this country since 1900, and the last was in 1978, according to a medical report published in 1999.

Stevens was an outdoorsman and a gardener and had traveled to North Carolina a few days before his symptoms appeared. But officials said they were unaware of any recent behavior on the man's part that might have brought him into easy contact with anthrax spores, such as handling animal carcasses. The disease can strike anywhere from a few days to about two months after exposure.

Despite the lack of evidence of bioterrorism, the case offered rich fodder for conspiracy theories. Most worrisome to Stevens' neighbors was that their modest neighborhood is directly under the flight path used by small planes taking off from Palm Beach County Park Airport just a few blocks away. That's the airport from which Mohamed Atta -- the suspected pilot of the hijacked plane that slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower Sept. 11 -- rented a small plane on three occasions during the month of August as part of his flight training.

Atta had also made several inquiries in the past year about how to fly crop dusters, a revelation that led to concerns that he might have been planning to use a spray plane to mount a biological attack.

"Of course I'm concerned," said Louis Sellitti, a 33-year-old electrician whose house is across the street from Stevens'. "I mean these guys were flyng right overhead. The airport's right there."

There is no evidence that Atta ever flew a crop duster or had access to anthrax or any other biological agent. Nonetheless, rumors of a large scale anthrax attack got further stoked Friday when word spread that one hospitalized patient in Miami who was being tested for anthrax worked with Stevens, who handled photos for the supermarket tabloid the Sun.

The Sun and its sister newspaper, the Globe, both owned by the same parent company, have run highly inflammatory cover stories about Osama bin Laden in recent weeks, with headlines like: "Bin Laden Exposed! How he tortures women. His secret addiction. How he shames his faith." If two employees in the same building came down with the same disease, some worried, it could mean that the building's air circulating system had been covertly seeded with the deadly microbes.

As it turned out, Florida's acting state epidemiologist Steven Wiersma confirmed late Friday that a hospitalized co-worker of Stevens' had indeed been tested for anthrax -- as had many other critically ill patients throughout the state who met very broad criteria for followup -- and had tested negative for the bacterium.

Officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Stevens was first recognized as possibly having anthrax by a local laboratory that handles most blood tests for the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, where Stevens had been admitted. That lab found characteristic purple-staining rod-shaped bacteria in his blood and spinal fluid. A state public health lab made the diagnosis with more sophisticated tests, and a CDC lab confirmed that finding using a high-tech DNA test.

Bill Patrick, who was involved in the U.S. biowarfare program at Fort Detrick, Md., before the United States signed onto an international treaty banning such programs in the early 1970s, said it may be that inhalation anthrax is a bit more common than has been thought but that cases have been misdiagnosed. Stevens' case may be the first of several that will be identified, he said, now that health departments are becoming more vigilant.