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What is real threat of anthrax?
Lysa Todd, a receptionist at the Frontiersman, wears protective gloves when opening incoming mail. State workers have been encouraged to wear non-latex plastic gloves when opening mail as well. Photo by AMY MENEREY/Frontiersman.
By RINDI WHITE-Frontiersman reporter
MAT-SU (Alaska)-- Every day more possible cases of anthrax are being investigated around the nation, and every day around the Mat-Su Borough, local law enforcement agencies are being asked to investigate suspicious powders and packages.
But what is the real threat? Is this something that has simply been blown out of proportion, or is this truly some form of bioterrorism?
While experts are still determining whether the reported cases of anthrax stem from hoaxes or an attack against Americans, Alaskans are prepared for a potential outbreak.
Kevin Koechlein, Mat-Su Borough director of public safety, said a few people have called with anthrax-related questions over the past weeks.
"We've had a couple [calls]," Koechlein said, "[but] most of it has been people calling to ask questions."
Anthrax is a bacterial, zoonotic disease that occurs in domesticated and wild animals, including goats, sheep, cattle, horses and deer. The skin form of the disease may be contracted by handling contaminated hair, wool, hides, flesh, blood or excrement of infected animals and from manufactured products such as bone meal.
Infection is introduced through scratches or abrasions, inhalation of spores, eating undercooked infected meat or from flies.
If inhaled, anthrax generally incubates for one to seven days and gradually becomes evident through symptoms of fever, malaise, fatigue, cough or mild chest discomfort.
A skin infection, according to information from the U.S. Postal Service, occurs most frequently on the hands or forearms of people who work with infected livestock or contaminated animal products. Initially, it appears as a small, solid elevation of the skin, which becomes a fluid-filled blister and typically forms a black scab.
The fatality rate is, with treatment, less than 1 percent among those with a skin infection. Left untreated, inhaled or intestinal anthrax results in a fatality rate of more than 90 percent.
The postal service claims only 18 cases of inhaled anthrax were reported in the 20th century. According to Dr. Beth Funk, of the state Division of Public Health's section of epidemiology, there has never been a recorded case of anthrax in Alaska.
On a statewide level, Claire Richardson, deputy press secretary in the governor's office, said there have been a few dozen calls related to anthrax, many of which have turned out to be hoaxes. Richardson said state law enforcement agencies are taking every call seriously, and are working to cut back the number of hoaxes by prosecuting the perpetrators for false- reporting charges.
"There have been lots of calls, but nothing has tested positive for anthrax," Richardson said. As for the false reports, ". . . that is punishable under federal law and they do intend to track [the reports]."
How likely is it that a letter containing anthrax would be sent? According to information from the U.S. Postal Service, more than 569 million pieces of mail are delivered on a daily basis. Of that number, only two pieces of mail have been confirmed to have transported anthrax bacteria.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not recommending that people opening mail or mail clerks take any additional precautions, beyond looking for suspicious letters and packages, Richardson said state mail workers are using plastic, non-latex gloves to prevent any incidence of skin infections.
Skin infections are more likely to be contracted, Funk said, since most experts agree it would take a directed aerosol effect in order for someone opening a package or letter to inhale the thousands of anthrax spores it would require to become infected.
"It does . . . take a sufficient amount in order to be able to create disease," Funk said. "Letters just aren't the way to infect a lot of people."
As a result, state workers are not taking precautions against inhalants by wearing face or gas masks -- a practice that some in the medical field say may not be very helpful anyway.
"You can't just buy any old gas mask and plop it on your face," Funk said, explaining that the mask must fit the contours of the face of the wearer. "Depending on the type of mask, it has to be changed or the filters have to be changed regularly or it's [no longer useful]."
Additionally, Funk said, taking such precautions likely will not mean those who receive a suspicious package won't undergo precautionary treatment.
"We wouldn't say, "Oh, you're protected,'" Funk said. "It's not going to change anything as far as [treatment]."
Koechlein said his department and local law enforcement agencies have developed a method of response in preparation for any potential bioterrorist threat in the Valley.
"What we're going to do [in the event of the discovery of a potentially dangerous package], along with law enforcement, is basically contain it, decontaminate the individual and secure the scene," Koechlein said.
Once the scene is secure, one of two outside agencies -- either the Anchorage Fire Department or a civil support unit from Fort Richardson -- would be called in to deal with the potentially hazardous substance. While Mat-Su agencies have hazardous materials training, the two groups Koechlein mention specialize in such activities and have up-to-date equipment with which to handle the incident.
Those concerned about handling mail have several resources they can tap into to learn the latest recommendations from the CDC. That agency's Web site is www.bt.cdc.gov. More information and links to several resources about anthrax can be obtained at the state's Web site, at http://www.state.ak.us. At that Web site, Richardson said, a special link has been dedicated to updating Alaskans on how to maintain security on the home front. That link, she said, is in the upper right corner of the state's Web page, under the heading "Homeland Security."
Copyright 2001 Frontiersman.com.
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