SCMP Saturday, November 10, 2001

Americans told to stay vigilant over anthrax

REUTERS in Washington

Updated at 10.58am:
US health authorities urged Americans overnight (HK time) to remain vigilant over the threat of anthrax even though no new cases of the deadly bacteria have been reported for more than a week.
With investigators still searching for those behind the germ warfare attacks and tens of thousands of people taking antibiotics as a preventive measure, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acting Deputy Director Dr Julie Gerberding said, ''This is not over until the criminals are caught. We need to remain vigilant.''
President George W. Bush visited the Atlanta headquarters of the CDC, the federal agency responsible for responding to public health emergencies. Mr Bush said public health officials are among ''the new heroes of America.''
Anthrax has killed four people since October 5 and infected 13 others, according to official CDC figures. Several letters laced with the powdery anthrax bacteria spores have been sent by an unknown perpetrator or perpetrators through the US mail to government and media targets.
With postal workers on the front line of the scare, Postmaster General John Potter told Congress overnight the service needed an immediate US$2 billion (HK$15.5 billion) to cover lost revenues.
He forecast at least US$3 billion in costs for cleaning up anthrax spores, purchasing mail-sanitising equipment and instituting other measures to make the postal system secure.
''The attacks that began on September 11 were acts of war. They have resulted in costs and business impacts that simply could not have been anticipated,'' Mr Potter told a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
In what authorities hope might be a sign the anthrax threat is waning, there has not been a new case of the disease since October 31, when a New York hospital worker, Kathy Nguyen, died from the more severe inhaled form of the disease.
Investigators still do not know how Nguyen contracted anthrax and are tracking the final weeks of her life to see where she went, who she saw and what she did.
''We have not ruled out the mail as a source of her exposure,'' said Gerberding.
Postal Service spokesman Azeezaly Jaffer told a conference call there were grounds to be hopeful. ''If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it's that I think we can say that the last contaminated letter was mailed on October 9,'' Mr Jaffer said.
Anthrax has killed two postal workers, in what the president has called a second wave of terrorism following the September 11 attacks on buildings in New York and Washington, where about 4,800 people died.
Thomas Morris, one of the dead postal workers, called the 911 emergency operator hours before his death and said he thought he had been exposed to the bacteria at Washington's Brentwood facility, after a colleague opened an envelope containing white powder. A transcript of the call was released on Wednesday.