Bioterrorism has claimed four lives since October 4, when a Florida man died of inhalation anthrax. Since then, health officials have been dogged by reports of hundreds of exposures to the bacteria, real or fake.
Public health officials have tried to keep on top of the real exposures and infections, but slow or unreliable tests have resulted in frustration and controversial decisions. Sightings of white powder, many of which have been hoaxes, have frightened many people and clogged an already busy public health system.
The Mayo Clinic’s new test would examine DNA to identify anthrax in human and environmental samples. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the test’s use, but some laboratories plan to begin using it next week.
“The first thing people want to know in a case of suspected exposure is whether the agent was in fact anthrax,” Dr. Franklin Cockerill, the Mayo Clinic microbiologist who led the development team, said.
“Until now, local labs have been able to quickly determine the presence of a bacterium, but they can’t tell whether it is anthrax or not. The current process to identify the presence of anthrax may take several days. The events of the last several weeks require as rapid a response as possible,” he said in a statement.
Decontamination efforts continue
Today in New Jersey, a postal worker with inhaled anthrax was released from the hospital and is said to be in good condition.
“Even though we have been confronted with a deadly disease, there is hope,” Norma Wallace, age 56, said about her leaving the hospital.
Wallace works at a post office where at least two letters containing anthrax are believed to have originated. She is one of 17 confirmed cases of anthrax so far. Nine of those people were also diagnosed with the potentially deadly inhaled form of the disease.
Wallace’s release came as another victim of inhalation anthrax was remembered in New York City. The death of Kathy Nguyen, a New York hospital worker, from inhaled anthrax has puzzled officials because she was not in direct contact with anything that was previously considered a risk for infection.
Investigators have not found new cases of anthrax infection, but more office buildings tested positive for the bacteria.
A small mailroom at the Pentagon tested positive for traces of anthrax this weekend, but officials said it was promptly removed. Anthrax spores were apparently found in two mailboxes and further tests found no anthrax, officials said.
The final House office building, closed during the Capitol Hill anthrax scare, was opened today, after authorities detected no further anthrax spores.
The cleanup of the Hart Senate office building, however, where the office of Sen. Tom Daschle received an anthrax-laced letter, is still confounding experts. The building was closed after officials realized how far the spores had spread. Officials are now debating plans to disinfect the building using chlorine dioxide gas.
On Sunday, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said anthrax spores were found in City Hall, possibly spread to the facility by a videotape from NBC. Authorities say the tape, which the network sent as a courtesy, or its packaging may have come into contact with a letter sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw that tested positive for anthrax.