Second Man Exposed to Anthrax as U.S. Steps Up Investigation
A second Florida man has been exposed to anthrax, and U.S. officials have initiated a "vigorou[s]" investigation into the causes of the exposure, the Los Angeles Times reports. The first man exposed -- Bob Stevens, a photo editor at a tabloid owned by Boca Raton-based American Media Inc. -- died on Friday from the "rare and extremely deadly" bacteria. Health workers also detected anthrax spores in the nasal passages of the second man, Ernesto Blanco, a mail room employee in the same building as Stevens, but Blanco has not contracted the disease. Blanco is being treated with antibiotics and is in stable condition (Dahlburg, Los Angeles Times, 10/9). Officials speculate that Blanco has not developed anthrax because he was exposed to a very low dose or that the spores he inhaled were too large to be transported deep into his lungs. CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds said that because Blanco took antibiotics, he will not contract the disease (Weiss, Washington Post, 10/9). In a third instance, health officials preliminarily have ruled out anthrax exposure in the case of a Virginia man who worked in the Fairfax, Va., office of American Media and went to a Manassas, Va., hospital last night with symptoms of "confusion and chest pain." Dr. Thomas Ryan, director of the Prince William Hospital emergency department, said, "We feel very confident about his progress and at this point it looks like it's not anthrax." Lab workers will complete final cultures to determine anthrax exposure within 24 hours; the hospital is expected to receive the results between 6 p.m. and midnight tonight (Pino-Marina, Washingtonpost.com, 10/9). Anthrax, which can occur naturally or be produced in a laboratory, cannot be spread from person to person, but rather is contracted through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation, which is the "rarest and most lethal form." Stevens had inhaled anthrax (Sharp et al., USA Today, 10/9). During the 20th century, only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported in the United States. Ninety percent of anthrax-exposed people die within days if not treated with antibiotics (Riddle, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/9). Symptoms of inhalation anthrax include fever, muscle aches and fatigue, which later give way to internal bleeding and coma (Bor/Pelton, Baltimore Sun, 10/9). To diagnose anthrax, doctors look for swollen lymph nodes in the chest and purple-staining rod-shaped bacteria present in the blood.
Although a federal investigation of the first anthrax exposure has been underway since Stevens was diagnosed last week, the initiative "took a clear turn in style and tone yesterday, looking less like a standard public health inquiry and more like a criminal investigation," the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 10/9). Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday, "We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation. And we are pursuing this with all the dispatch and care that's appropriate." But he added that federal authorities do not have "enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not." Investigators quarantined the newspaper publisher's offices yesterday (Dahlburg, Los Angeles Times, 10/9). Around noon yesterday, hazardous materials experts from around the nation visited the company's offices. The Miami Herald reports that investigators are "focus[ing]" on the possibility that anthrax spores were introduced into the building through mail or air ducts (Garcia et al, Miami Herald, 10/9). Over the weekend, officials discovered traces of anthrax bacteria on Stevens' keyboard (Dahlburgh, Los Angeles Times, 10/9). FBI agents and CDC scientists are inspecting desks and other surfaces to determine how anthrax may have spread through the building (Weiss, Washington Post, 10/9).
Although anthrax can be contracted from farm animals or soil, federal investigators have ruled out the "obvious environmental factors," CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds said (AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/9). Investigators believe Stevens and Blanco were "infected independently from the same source" (Wade, New York Times, 10/9). A spokesperson for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said the senator was told by Bush administration health officials that the anthrax incidents were "intentional." According to the spokesperson, an official said the chances that the incidents occurred without human intervention were "nil to zero" (Terhune et al., Wall Street Journal, 10/9). Investigators are looking into a report that suspected terrorist Mohamed Atta, thought to be the "ringleader" of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, rented a small airplane at an airport 17 miles from the American Media offices (Dahlburg, Los Angeles Times, 10/9). In addition, investigators are looking into a "strange" email American Media employees received in August from a summer intern. The email reportedly said: "I've left you a surprise. Ha-ha. I'm just joking" (Turhane et al., Wall Street Journal, 10/9). Besides determining how anthrax entered the American Media offices, investigators also will use DNA analysis to identify the strain of anthrax, which could "suggest possible origins," including specific nations, according to Richard Spetzel, a former head of a United Nations biological team that "sought to cleanse Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War" (Dahlburg, Los Angeles Times, 10/9).
As investigators continue to look into the causes of the two Florida incidents, health officials have urged American Media employees and people who had visited the offices to go to the Palm Beach County Health Department for "precautionary antibiotics treatment and to be tested with nasal swabs for exposure." Many of those being tested at the health department left with 15-day supplies of Ciproflaxocin (Canedy/Kuczynski, New York Times, 10/9).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.