Anthrax: No cause for alarm

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Staff Writer

Two cases of anthrax ­ one resulting in death ­ have been reported in Florida, causing alarm across the nation, but authorities here say there is no need to panic.

What, at first, was a public health investigation became a criminal investigation as Federal Bureau of Investigation agents started looking into what is believed to be an isolated incident, targeted at a particular location.

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Pike County Emergency Management Agency Director Larry Davis said "it’s going to be interesting to see what happens" in the Florida anthrax scare, but cautions Pike County residents not to panic.

"The most important thing people can do is make sure their hospital is aware," Davis said, adding anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms may want to have additional tests run. "Our doctors and hospitals are going to have to take responsibility."

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium. It most commonly is seen in wild and domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelope and other herbivores.

However, it can occur in humans when an individual is exposed to an infected animal or tissue of an infected animal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, anthrax is most common in agricultural areas, including South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

The infection can occur through the skin, inhalation and by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.

Only 18 cases of anthrax contracted through inhalation were reported in the United States during the 20th century. The most recent case was reported in California in 1976.

The less serious form of anthrax, contracted through the skin, is more common.

Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics, although the variety contracted through inhalation is particularly lethal. If left untreated, 90 percent of victims die within days.

If anthrax spores between 1 and 5 microns penetrate the tiny sacks in the lungs, the immune system responds, killing some of the spores, but carrying others to the lymph nodes in the chest. The spores germinate and within one to 60 days, anthrax bacteria will begin to multiply, infecting tissue in the chest. As the tissue is infected, bacteria produce toxins that enter the bloodstream and, in the lungs, can cause hemorrhaging, collection of fluid and tissue decay.

Davis said there is little that can be done other than remaining cautious about any suspicious packages, such as the powder-containing one that killed the photo editor of The Sun in Boca Raton.

Davis said suspicious substances should be reported to law enforcement agencies and the Emergency Management Agency.

"We’d just have to go from there," Davis said of investigating any reports. "Nine times out of 10, it isn’t going to be anything. If they have any doubts, they need to hand it over to someone else," he said referring to authorities.

Wearing gas masks is not the answer, Davis said.

"You can’t live in that type of environment. That’s exactly what they (terrorists) want to see. They would have done their job, then."