New Anthrax Source Unlikely in New York City Death
Although the anthrax-related death of 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen, a Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital supply clerk, remains a "mystery," New York City health officials are "growing more confident" that her case is an isolated one rather than the "harbinger of a new outbreak," the Wall Street Journal reports. Sandra Mullin, an associate commissioner at the New York City Department of Health, said that officials have not ruled out the possibility of a new source, but added, "we would have expected more [infected] people to have appeared by now" if the anthrax source was new and unrelated to anthrax-tainted letters sent to NBC News, the New York Post and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). The Journal reports that officials are growing confident that the three letters contaminated other mail and spread anthrax spores to other mailrooms and postal facilities across the country (Sandberg/Tkacik, Wall Street Journal, 11/5). In the hospital, Nguyen "occasionally dealt with mail," but it was not her "primary job," according to Terrance O'Brien, executive vice president of Lenox Hill Hospital, which owns the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat facility (Weinstein et al., New York Post, 11/4). Tests of the hospital and Nguyen's apartment have turned up no traces of anthrax. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "The mystery still remains, but we haven't seen something that would suggest that she was exposed by a way that had nothing to do with mail that may be in another environmental situation" (Wall Street Journal, 11/5). Investigators continue to trace the last few days of Nguyen's life to determine how she could have contracted anthrax. Stephen Ostroff, the CDC epidemiologist who is leading the New York investigation, said, "She is an epidemiologist's worst nightmare in that she lived alone and had no relatives in this country. And although she obviously had friends at work and in her neighborhood, it's very, very labor intensive and difficult to piece together what this woman may have been doing in the one to two weeks since she fell ill" (Weiss/Brown, Washington Post, 11/5).
Meanwhile, investigators now believe mail to be the source of cutaneous anthrax infection in a 51-year-old New Jersey bookkeeper, the Washington Post reports. A preliminary test on her mailbox at work came back positive for anthrax contamination. Should further tests confirm the finding, it could indicate that the spores had come by "ordinary mail" that came in contact with anthrax-laced letters. Mail delivered to the woman's office is processed by a facility in Hamilton Township, N.J., believed to be the facility that handled letters to Daschle and New York. Postal inspector Dan Mihalko said, "A logical assumption would be that there is some sort of cross contamination." Such a finding could mean a "sharply" increased number of people at risk for exposure or infection, the Washington Post reports. Officials, however, said that the woman also could have become infected by mailing a letter containing anthrax spores or through "other as-yet unknown means at home or work" (Vedantam, Washington Post, 11/3). HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said of the anthrax contamination found in the woman's office mailbox, "We have not conclusively ruled that's where she got it from, but it's a good indication" (Taylor, Washington Times, 11/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.