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Last Updated

06 Nov 2002

Source: USA Today, September 30, 2002.

Survivors still wrestle with pain, fatigue and shortness of breath

By Laura Parker, USA TODAY

Ernesto Blanco (Case 7), who ran the mailroom for six Florida tabloid newspapers, was the second man to get anthrax in last fall's attack. The first, photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5), died. Conventional wisdom then held that inhalation anthrax was almost always fatal and that Blanco would die, too.

But Blanco, who is now 74, beat the odds and is back at work. "He's really doing great," says Blanco's granddaughter, Veronica Carner.

David Hose (case 20), 60, a State Department mail sorter who also was infected with inhalation anthrax, doesn't feel so lucky. He suffers chronic fatigue, memory loss, high blood pressure, shortness of breath and pain.

"I figure we were all pretty strong and healthy before, or we'd all be dead," he says. "Now, I am not working. I can't do a lot of heavy lifting. I can't walk very far without getting out of breath. I am limited that way."

In all, 18 people survived the bioterrorism attack that killed five people a year ago. Six of the survivors lived through inhalation anthrax.

Initially, all of the survivors were expected to make a full recovery after treatment with powerful antibiotics. But with few exceptions, such as Blanco, many of them are still sick.

They suffer from a laundry list of symptoms that have left many of them debilitated, depressed and unable to work. Memory loss is a prominent symptom, as is anxiety, pain and fatigue.

Doctors are baffled. For starters, there is little medical research to draw on because so few people in the past survived anthrax. So it became all but impossible to predict long-term effects. It is also difficult to distinguish which of the symptoms, such as fatigue, are linked to anthrax instead of another condition, such as stress.

Riddles come up nearly every week. Hose, for example, has developed asthma for the first time in his life. No one can tell him why.

A month ago, his blood pressure shot up, he had chest pains and he was so badly out of breath that his doctor insisted he go to a hospital emergency room. Four hours and an electrocardiogram later, Hose was no closer to an answer. He is very discouraged that the cause could not be diagnosed.

"I decided from then on if I kept having pains, I would just work my way through them," he says. "I don't know what causes them, and they don't either, evidently."

Like Hose, Leroy Richmond (case 14), 57, suffers memory loss and fatigue. A mail handler at Washington's Brentwood mail processing center, he was hospitalized for 27 days last fall and nearly died.

He also began to experience panic attacks for no logical reason. "There was a time when the least little thing became a monumental event," he says. He has been prescribed an antidepressant to help curb the attacks.

He says he is not angry that he became one of the victims of the anthrax attack. But he worries that because the attack wasn't as visual as the one on the World Trade Center that the public will become complacent about bioterrorism.

"The possibility of this happening again looms, and it's not remote that it may happen again," he says.

The survivors are of great interest to researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. They want to study the group, especially the six (i.e., cases 7, 11, 13, 14, 17 and 20) who survived inhalation anthrax, to discover the long-term effects of the infection.

"It's an incredibly unique situation," says Cliff Lane, clinical director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. "In the past, most patients died. You didn't have post-inhalation survivors. It's very difficult to know what one might find, which is what makes it important research."

Contributing: Contributing: Deborah Sharp.