CONN. DETECTS ANTHRAX ON A LETTER NEAR VICTIM'S HOME
13 Nov 2002
Source: New York Times, December 1, 2001.
Connecticut Detects Anthrax on a Letter Near Victim's Home
By PAUL ZIELBAUER
HARTFORD, Nov. 30 -- In their first investigative break, state officials said today that a trace amount of anthrax had been discovered on a letter delivered to a family living one mile from the home of the 94-year-old woman who died of inhalation anthrax last week.
The letter, received by a family in Seymour, Conn., in early October, was processed in a New Jersey mail center within 15 seconds of the contaminated letters sent to two United States senators, the officials said. Those letters are believed to have played a role in the deaths of at least two people and the sickening of a handful of others.
Though the discovery does not provide any breakthrough clues on the precise origin of the lethal dose of the bacteria, it bolsters the dominant theory of investigators that anthrax-contaminated mail processed in the postal center in Hamilton, N.J., may have played a role in the Connecticut woman's death.
The finding, announced here at a news conference by Gov. John G. Rowland, is also forcing health officials to ever more seriously consider the possibility that a person can contract the deadly form of the disease from a tiny amount of spores on letters that merely came in contact with the powerfully poisoned letters sent in early October to Senators Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
And health and postal officials said today that they were coming to believe that anthrax spores might move from letter to letter -- that, for instance, a letter contaminated by a Daschle or Leahy letter might then contaminate others, and that such small traces of the bacteria could prove deadly for an aging person or someone vulnerable to infection.
The authorities said that no one in the Seymour, Conn., family that received the tainted letter had become ill, and they emphasized that the risk to the general public of being infected by incidentally contaminated mail was minimal.
The finding of the single anthrax spore comes after more than a week of widespread testing in and around Oxford, Conn., where Ottilie W. Lundgren lived until her death from inhalation anthrax on Nov. 21. Seymour is adjacent to Oxford.
"The significance is that after all this search, this tremendous amount of search, there has at long last been a trace of anthrax found on something, which is really quite remarkable," said Dr. D. A. Henderson, director of the office of public health preparedness of the Department of Health and Human Services. "Does it really have anything to do with this case at all? We're not certain. But the significant thing is that there is evidence of anthrax on a letter."
Officials said the discovery of the contaminated letter appears to have resulted from a striking bit of technological detective work. Postal officials had for weeks been trying to determine what letters passed through the New Jersey center that processed the letters to the senators and where those letters had been sent.
When Mrs. Lundgren died, postal officials checked to see if she had received mail that had moved through the New Jersey center. The available information suggested that she had not, but postal workers found that a letter sent to nearby Seymour had gone through the processing center within 15 seconds of the Leahy letter. After several days and a number of searches of the family's house in Seymour, the letter was found, and it tested positive.
Postal officials said they had tested postal buildings around the country after they determined where the hundreds of letters that passed through the New Jersey center in close proximity to the Leahy and Daschle letters had been sent. The officials said that 22 centers tested positive for anthrax, although the post office in Seymour did not.
The authorities today emphasized that much investigation remained to be done, and that no theory of how Mrs. Lundgren contracted anthrax could be conclusively ruled out. It is possible, they conceded, that she might have received mail that had been directly contaminated by a Leahy or Daschle letter and it simply had not been found. Or she might have received a piece of mail that had been contaminated in some minor way by a letter that had been contaminated in New Jersey.
If either of those proves to be the case, it could help explain the still unsolved death of Kathy T. Nguyen, the 61-year-old hospital worker from the Bronx who died of inhalation anthrax Oct. 31. No trace of anthrax has yet been found in her Bronx apartment, the local post offices or the Manhattan hospital where she worked, and investigators were initially reluctant to believe that she could have contracted inhalation anthrax from what they termed a cross-contaminated piece of mail.
The spore of anthrax found on the Seymour letter -- a personal letter delivered in October -- is not enough to make anyone ill, said Dr. Joxel Garcia, the Connecticut public health commissioner. But its presence lends credence to the growing suspicion among state and federal officials that Mrs. Lundgren, because of her advanced age, could have been killed by a fraction of the 8,000 to 10,000 spores that epidemiologists say are necessary to infect the average person.
Though very unlikely, it is "biologically very possible" for someone very old or in a weakened state to become infected with trace amounts of anthrax spores, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Those two things compounding each other could be an explanation for what you're talking about now."
The spore discovered in Seymour should not make people afraid to open mail, Governor Rowland said at the news conference. The letter was sent six weeks ago, he stressed, making the likelihood of further anthrax cases more remote each day. "We have no reason to believe that anyone else is going to be infected," he said.
The new anthrax discovery intensifies the forensic search for its origins, but "it really doesn't help" the F.B.I.'s investigation into who is responsible, the governor added.
The discovery has prompted state epidemiologists to enter Mrs. Lundgren's home again, this time with leaf-blower-like machines to stir up microscopic particles, though all of her mail tested negative for anthrax spores days ago, and finding older mail she threw out weeks ago would be virtually impossible.
"Has it changed the way we're doing this investigation? No," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating Mrs. Lundgren's death.
"We're visiting and revisiting the home of this woman," he said. "At the moment, we really don't have one of these routes that's more likely than another."
Today's evidence pointing to anthrax cross-contamination through the mail is not the first; two other cases of cutaneous, non-lethal anthrax from tainted mail were discovered in New Jersey in recent weeks.
As scientists try to unravel the origin of the anthrax spores, agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service said they had arrested four men -- three from Pakistan, one from India -- in Connecticut following a tip that two of them may have known the Bronx victim, Kathy T. Nguyen. The four men, who were arrested on immigration charges, were interviewed by F.B.I. agents, who federal officials said dismissed the possibility that any of them were involved domestic terrorism.