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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Detroit Free Press, October 5, 2001.

No terror link seen in Florida anthrax

Rare strain of disease called an isolated case


MIAMI -- A 63-year-old man was critically ill in a Lake Worth, Fla., hospital late Thursday with an inhaled form of anthrax, an extremely obscure and deadly strain of a rare disease that some nations are believed to store for use as a weapon.

With the nation on alert for the threat of biological attacks, federal officials Thursday quickly moved to play down any link between terrorists and the first diagnosed case of anthrax in Florida in 27 years, but nevertheless said there would be "a very intense investigation."

The patient, Robert Stevens, is a photo editor at the Sun, a tabloid published in Boca Raton, Fla. It was unclear late Thursday how Stevens contracted the typically animal-borne disease, and state and federal epidemiologists were tracing his steps.

U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, at the White House, stressed that there was no indication of terrorism.

"This is an isolated case, and it's not contagious," Thompson said, hours after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the diagnosis. There is, he said, "no evidence that terrorism" was involved.

Federal sources said investigators from the CDC, county and state health agencies and the FBI are tracking Stevens' every movement from the time he left work on Sept. 26 until he landed in the hospital.

State health officials said it's likely Stevens contracted the deadly disease in Florida, based on its incubation period, which ranges from six to 45 days.

Anthrax infection typically comes from contact with infected animals, or animal products, including waste and skin. Most commonly, it is contracted by handling the spores.

Only 18 inhalation cases in the United States were documented in the 20th Century, the most recent in 1976, and the strain is usually fatal. State health officials said preliminary findings indicate Stevens inhaled the deadly bacteria.

"What concerns me is that it has occurred in a part of the United States where this disease does not occur in livestock," said Martin Hugh-Jones, an epidemiologist who coordinates the World Health Organization Working Group on Anthrax Research and Control.

Officials at JFK Memorial Hospital in Lake Worth said Stevens was admitted early Tuesday after arriving with relatives at the emergency room. He was unable to speak, but family members told physicians he was confused, had a high fever and was vomiting, said Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist.

Fluid from a spinal tap was initially diagnosed as bacillus, which is usually a sign of meningitis. Bacillus is fairly rare, so Bush said he sent the results to a state lab, which then sent the material to the CDC in Atlanta, which confirmed anthrax Thursday.

The disease is fatal if untreated. Hospital officials said Stevens was receiving penicillin and is on a respirator. He was heavily sedated.