A Newshour Extra For Students Special Report:
fights new form of terrorism
In the weeks following the Sept. 11 plane crashes, the American public tried to recover from the destruction and hoped the future would be peaceful and free of other attacks.
However, by early October there were reports of a new threat arriving not by air, but by mail.
So far, there are 17 people with confirmed anthrax cases since the outbreak began. Ten have the inhaled form, including four who have died. The others have less severe skin infections.
Anthrax is a bacteria--tiny organism that can cause sickness. The bacteria can be found on sheep and goats, but it is very rare in the United States.
Infection in humans can occur in three ways: through a cut on the skin (cutaneous), by inhaling the spores (pulmonary) or by eating meat contaminated with anthrax (gastrointestinal). It is not contagious, and a person sick with anthrax cannot spread it to another person.
Left untreated, around 5 percent of cases turn into a dangerous bloodstream infection, which is almost always fatal. However, if it is detected early, treatment with antibiotic drugs is almost always successful.
The FBI has received over 3,000 reports involving anthrax or other dangerous agents since October 1. Most turned out to be "false alarms or practical jokes."
Hundreds of false alarms from London to Australia were reported, but no real case of anthrax has been found outside of the U.S.
A germ weapon?
Anthrax is a potential biological weapon because the particals, called spores, are easy to produce and can be stored for long periods. Many trained biologists can produce anthrax from a sample but it is much more difficult to turn it into a biological weapon in the form of a fine mist that can be inhaled.
Although anthrax is getting a lot of attention now, it is not a new disease in the United States. From 1900 to 1976, 18 cases of the inhaled version were reported. In the early 1900s, the nation had about 200 cases a year of a less threatening form in which the germ infects the skin.
The bacteria sometimes entered the United States on imported animal hides. One common source of the disease was shaving brushes made from infected horse hair.
Decades ago, both the United States and the former Soviet Union produced anthrax as a potential weapon, but since 1972 it's been illegal internationally to use deadly germs in an act of war.
Changing the future of mail
Postmaster General Jack Potts is in charge of the U.S. Postal Service. He said the risks to the general public of receiving tainted mail were "infinitesimally small If people just use prudent judgment, use common sense, there is nothing to fear."
Mailrooms across the country are using new procedures to protect workers and people who open mail. The Postal Service plans to send all households a notice outlining safety procedures.
It's too early to say for sure how the anthrax scare will affect how items and messages get from one person or business to another, but alternatives to mail with envelopes may become more popular.
With the holidays approaching, Hallmark will encourage postcards as a way of sending greetings and Internet analysts say inboxes are going to grow as more people decide that e-mail is safer than snail mail.
For more on this topic, the Online NewsHour is following stories on the investigation and the U.S. reaction.
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