Source in Latest Anthrax Death Eludes Officials
Investigators looking into the latest death from inhaled anthrax infection -- 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen, a supply clerk at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital -- have yet to determine how the woman became ill, the Baltimore Sun reports. Environmental tests on the hospital and Nguyen's home have turned up no anthrax spores, but a preliminary sample taken from some of her clothing has shown "some indications" of the bacteria. Further tests are underway to confirm the contamination on her clothing (Dewar et al., Baltimore Sun, 11/1). If the traces are confirmed, they would be likely to have "wound up on her clothing at the time of her exposure" rather than because she carried the disease (Lipton, New York Times, 11/1). Thus far, investigators have been unable to link Nguyen's death to an anthrax-tainted piece of mail nor to any of the other anthrax infections. Although investigators have said it is possible that Nguyen received mail that came into contact with a contaminated letter, Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research, said, "It is unlikely that a cross-contaminated letter would pick up sufficient spores and sufficient energy to put those spores into the air" and infect a person (Fields, Wall Street Journal, 11/1). Some of the more than 1,000 employees of the hospital and people who visited there in the last two weeks have been tested for exposure and given antibiotics. So far, none have tested positive (New York Times, 11/1). Positive test results would suggest "fresh, direct exposure to the [bacteria], as opposed to cross contamination from an existing piece of mail" (Powell/Connolly, Washington Post, 11/1).
Detectives and disease tracking experts are retracing Nguyen's activities in her last seven days, but the effort has been complicated because investigators were unable to speak with Nguyen before she died yesterday. Health officials also are conducting an autopsy on Nguyen to determine what type of anthrax killed her and to determine whether it matches the strain used in the other incidents, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "This is a very puzzling mystery. So all bets are off. Public health officials (have) to do a real full-court press on trying to track this down. This is critical." HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson added, "The death has caused us to rededicate our efforts and ourselves." Presently 450 HHS employees, including 150 from the CDC, are working on the anthrax "crisis" (Goldman/Sanders, Los Angeles Times, 11/1).
Medical investigators also are trying to determine the cause of a cutaneous anthrax infection in a 51-year-old New Jersey bookkeeper who lives in Hamilton Township, the location of a mail-processing center that handled three anthrax-laced letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post (Baltimore Sun, 11/1). The woman receives mail at home and work that has been processed at that postal facility. Fauci said there is a "possibility" that she received a letter contaminated with spores from the facility (Wall Street Journal, 11/1). He added, "The cutaneous part of it is compatible with cross contamination. The [Nguyen] case in New York City is clearly much more perplexing, because at this point, there really is no apparent connection. And the inhalation component of it makes it even more perplexing" (Washington Post, 11/1). Two more individuals -- an Eye, Ear and Throat employee and another New Jersey postal worker -- are also suspected of having cutaneous anthrax infections (Sorokin, Washington Times, 11/1). There are 17 cases of confirmed anthrax infection. Four people have died from inhalation anthrax; six others still have the infection and are receiving treatment. Seven individuals have cutaneous anthrax (Washington Post, 11/1).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.