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Florida Anthrax Investigation

Around 8:30 pm Wednesday, federal agents announced that the health probe into the source of anthrax was now considered a “federal criminal investigation.”

The health investigation began after Robert Stevens, a photographer for The Sun tabloid paper, was diagnosed with the very rare pulmonary anthrax. He died on Friday. Another man tested positive Monday. The bacterium was found in his nose, but he was not sick with the disease.

Now, a 35 year-old woman employed by American Media Inc. was found to have traces of anthrax in her nasal passages. She has been hospitalized and is being treated with antibiotics; the details of her condition remain unknown.

Acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis confirmed that this case would now be handled as a “federal criminal case,” and would focus on how and why the anthrax got into the building.

Over 1,000 people who recently visited or worked in the office building have been tested by nasal swabs. Most are still waiting for the results. Health officials gave antibiotic treatments to employees and recommended that employees get retested.

Authorities emphasized that there was no indication the anthrax was produced or caused by a terrorist group or individuals related to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

“If this was a massive exposure, there should be lots of people sick. We are not finding that,” Dr. Scott Lillibridge, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson’s special assistant for bioterrorism, told members of Congress in Washington.

Preliminary tests in federal labs have shown that the anthrax bacteria found in Florida may be connected to a strain produced in an Iowa lab fifty years ago.

While the tests are not complete, a positive identification of the deadly bacteria would show that the anthrax did not appear naturally.

FBI agents in moon suits and gas masks continue to clear out bags of evidence from the American Media Inc. building. The agents have taken samples all over the building, but so far have only found traces of the bacteria on Stevens’ keyboard.

How the deadly microorganisms got into the newspaper’s office remains unknown. Federal investigators have eliminated the obvious environmental sources, like contact with an infected animal, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported in the United States during the 20th century, the most recent in 1976 in California. Anthrax can be contracted from farm animals or soil, but most cases involve a less serious form that is contracted through the skin.

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