This isn't a time to panic. The discovery that a second person who works at the tabloid newspaper publisher American Media Inc. in Boca Raton has been exposed to anthrax is cause for worry, but not for alarm.
In the face of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks against U.S. cities, it is tempting to conclude that the death of one man and exposure of another to anthrax is part of a long-feared bioterrorism attack against the United States. Tempting but wrong.
It is too early for such a conclusion. The evidence thus far -- although suggestive of ``human intervention'' of some kind -- doesn't point to a widespread terrorism event of the sort Americans fear from a terror-supporting state or from operatives acting at the behest of a terrorist group.
Yet a tinge of fear was etched in the faces of scores of AMI employees who lined up this week for tests to determine if they've been exposed to the bacteria. Their concern is the worry of all Americans whose lives have been profoundly changed by the terror attacks in New York and Washington. President Bush has declared America ``at war'' with global terrorism and has appointed a director of Homeland Security to buttress the country's defenses against terrorism.
If anything, the response to South Florida's anthrax scare is an example of how well local, state and federal agencies can respond to a potential bioterrorism threat. When it was learned that a second man showed signs of exposure to the disease, the FBI mobilized hazardous-materials experts from around the country to determine the extent of the problem, offer advice, dispense medications and, just as important, begin a criminal investigation. Federal health officials coordinated their work with their local and state counterparts and began the task of disseminating information about what the potential threat was, and wasn't. Of necessity, they set up a hotline number -- 1-800-342-3557 -- that the public can call to get answers about the bacteria, precautions, etc.
Although the country still lags in creating and fully funding comprehensive anti-bioterrorism programs, there is a strategy in place. The Department of Health and Human Services has a budget of about $300 million for bioterrorism preparedness, and it stockpiles antibiotics and medications that can be disseminated quickly in an emergency.
In addition, city and county hospitals and local health departments have emergency plans. Most, however, don't have an adequate supply of antibiotics and medications to handle a large-scale event affecting hundreds or thousands of people.
In Washington, lawmakers have focused on the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks as evidence that more funding and a better plan are needed to combat terrorism within America's own borders. They are right.
South Florida's anthrax scare isn't the big event that many fear. But it has riveted national attention and alerted the nation to the bioterrorism danger.
By all indications, a much-feared anthrax assault may have recently occurred in Florida. Anthrax spores were found in America Media employee Ernesto Blanco, who was hospitalized last week with flu-like symptoms. Those spores were also found on the keyboard of his co-worker, Bob Stevens, who died from the disease last week after experiencing similar symptoms.
Mr. Stevens joined 18 others known to have been afflicted with pulmonary anthrax this century -- all of those others worked in uncommon environments (such as wool sorting factories) where airborne anthrax spores are common. The current case of anthrax spores may have been delivered to the American Media building in a letter which reportedly contained a Star of David charm and a "soapy, powdery substance."
Thanks to these circumstances, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Monday that what started as epidemiology may soon become criminology. It should. While White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned yesterday against jumping to conclusions, this is, by all accounts, an unnatural event. It's also an event that a terrorist would naturally want to cause. After all, the intent of the terrorist is to terrify. As if any more evidence were needed, Osama bin Laden made that point again in his recently released videotaped statement.
The good news is that this appears to be a sneeze-sized assault rather than a full-scale biological weapons attack. Even though antibiotics have been provided to those who may have been exposed in Florida, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced, "The current risk of anthrax among employees and visitors to the building is extremely low." Instead of rushing out to buy gas masks like Maureen Dowd and Sally Quinn, most Americans seem to be reacting calmly.
That shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, while Americans have a habit of panicking over trivialities, they are usually steadfast under utter duress. While concert tickets for a boy band can inspire a Calgary-sized stampede, planes crashing into skyscrapers results in orderly evacuations down smoky staircases.
Were it to be found that a hostile state had a hand in releasing a weapon of mass destruction upon the United States (or even considered doing so), then the Bush administration should be prepared to respond in kind, with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons against those individuals and/or states.
In the longer term, America should improve its ability to defend itself against bioterrorism. Medical personnel need additional training in spotting and responding to such attacks, supplies of vaccines and antibiotics used to treat against those biological agents need to be increased. Funding for basic research against such weapons will have to be hiked.
As frightening as it to contemplate these awful eventualities, by their common sense and their natural ingenuity, Americans will remain resilient against whatever the crazed terrorists can think of throwing at us next.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Americans are quickly developing a healthy fear of anthrax. News that a Florida resident has died from the disease and perhaps two others have been exposed has, like so many recent occurrences, put people on edge.
What Americans must guard against is developing an unhealthy fear of anthrax - the kind of paralyzing fear of the unseen that makes terrorism effective.
Anthrax is nasty stuff. It takes from one to six days to germinate and starts off with some fairly nondescript symptoms: fatigue, fever, mild chest pain and maybe a dry cough. The symptoms ease somewhat, followed by sudden difficulty in breathing, profuse sweating, cyanosis (a blue coloring of the skin) and shock. From the onset of the more severe symptoms, death usually occurs within 36 hours.
That said, anthrax is not a very efficient way to kill large numbers of people. It is not transmitted from person to person, and if detected early, it responds well to antibiotics.
Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are all over the office building in Boca Raton associated with the current cases. Pathologists are examining the bacteria that killed Bob Stevens for clues about whether they are natural or genetically altered.
As of yesterday, some experts were leaning toward a natural explanation, because the bacteria were not resistant to antibiotics. Others, however, said there is no natural explanation for finding anthrax in an office building.
Until investigators reach consensus on an explanation, Americans must accept the possibility that someone with evil intent put anthrax spores in Bob Stevens' way. They must recognize such an act has always been a possibility.
And they must go on about their lives.
Americans would do well to remember the symptoms of anthrax, and government and medical leaders should be prepared with vaccines and antibiotics in the event that more cases come to light. After all, well-informed caution is a lifesaving tool that anyone can employ.
But worries about things beyond one's control are pointless distractions that play into the terrorists' hands. Fear is their tool, and we must make every conscious effort to blunt it.
Des Moines Register
Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax. The A-word. It's a threat Americans are thinking about. And it sounds scary. If inhaled, tiny anthrax spores attach to the lining of the lungs to germinate. From there, the bacteria spread quickly, secreting lethal toxins. The subsequent vomiting, chills and stomach pains might look like influenza to a doctor. But this infection doesn't run its course like the flu. It results in shock, coma, brain inflammation and death.
Now, inhaled anthrax has taken the life of a Florida man. A second man has also breathed the anthrax spores and is hospitalized. The two apparently were infected in their office building in Boca Raton via a letter that arrived in the mail. And it's no surprise the story is making front-page news around the country.
All the talk of biological terrorism, combined with the fact that only 18 anthrax cases have been reported in the United States in the past century, makes the Florida case suspicious. Throw in the fact that the Sept. 11 terrorists had taken flight lessons several miles from Boca Raton and the public really gets uneasy.
Yes, inhaling anthrax spores can lead to death. But it's important to keep the Florida story in perspective, particularly considering the current nervousness of the country. Scientists remind the public that cultivating anthrax to use as a weapon is difficult. To do harm to humans, the bio-agent has to be in the right form and maintain its potency. Scientists believe one would have to inhale thousands of the spores to become ill. And it's not contagious. One inhales, but doesn't exhale, the bacteria. It's not as simple to wreak havoc as it might seem.
But people especially fear what they cannot see. Biological threats are unsettling because the damage is already done by the time the cause is identified. In the case of Florida, however, there's no evidence to demonstrate it was motivated by foreign terrorism. And though officials should take a proactive approach in addressing potential terrorism, this particular scare shouldn't result in panic.
Public concern about potential biological terrorism has grown quickly with the diagnosis of a second employee showing signs of the anthrax bacteria at the Florida offices of supermarket tabloid newspapers. However remote the possibility of such an attack might be -- the Florida anthrax is not known to be part of one -- government agencies need to increase their preparedness and provide more guidance to fearful Americans.
Hawaii may be more prepared than many states. A 22-person Army National Guard unit was among 17 state Weapons of Mass Destruction Civilian Support Teams that was formed earlier this year at a cost of $3.5 million each. Ten such groups came on line a year earlier in other areas of the country. However, the Hawaii team was not expected to be in operation for at least another year because of the lengthy training involved. Recent events should require an acceleration of that schedule.
Many people understandably are frightened about the possibility of being exposed to anthrax or smallpox, the two germs most commonly mentioned as potential agents of terrorism. Anthrax, although not contagious, is relatively easy to acquire. It is considered lethal to people who inhale it and are not treated promptly. Apparently unaware of emergency measures that are in place, many panic-stricken Americans are stocking up on antibiotics that can be purchased at pharmacies.
Smallpox is contagious, but much more difficult than anthrax for a terrorist to obtain. Samples of the virus were supposed to be concentrated in two laboratories -- one in the United States, the other in Russia -- since the disease was eradicated worldwide in 1977. Rumors that some rogue nations have acquired supplies have not been confirmed.
The government has been lax in preparing a defense against biological warfare by terrorists. National Guard sentries last week began guarding a Michigan plant that is the sole provider of anthrax vaccine to the military. But the plant has not produced any vaccine since 1998, when a company bought the plant from the state and proceeded to flunk Food and Drug Administration inspections.
Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, has arranged for the manufacturer of a smallpox vaccine to deliver 40 million doses by the end of next summer, more than two years earlier than had been planned. He says the vaccine then will be kept in government stockpiles, for use in the event that the virus is used as a weapon. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for smallpox, which kills about 30 percent of unvaccinated victims.
For five years federal officials have warned of the possibility that terrorists might strike the United States with germ or poison weapons. The events of Sept. 11 didn't make such a frightening attack any more likely. But it brought home to Americans that someone who can kill thousands with hijacked airliners will have no scruples about attacking innocents with weapons of mass destruction. And it has left the country struggling to find the right balance between alarm and reassurance when confronted with news such as the death of a Florida man from anthrax and the discovery of anthrax spores in his workplace.
Health and law enforcement officials say it is unlikely that the spores appeared in the Florida offices of a tabloid newspaper through natural causes. They are investigating the incident as a deliberate act, either terrorism or a more ordinary crime. Since the Sept. 11 attack, the Bush administration has acknowledged the possibility of bioterrorism but has tried to calm fears. Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, is hoping to make "people understand they are safe. We're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack." But many Americans still wonder what they are to believe.
The risk of terrorist attacks using germ or chemical agents is real. There have been three dozen such incidents domestically over the last quarter-century and many more abroad. But the experience of those crimes suggests that striking with germ and poison weapons in a way that would produce mass casualties remains more difficult for terrorist groups than more conventional attacks. Making nerve gas or anthrax weapons takes technical skill, money and facilities. Effectively delivering those weapons requires expertise and the ability to move large quantities of materials without detection.
The first worries about terrorist attacks by germs and poison arose out of the crimes of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Well-funded and staffed with a cadre of scientists, it launched 19 germ and poison attacks in the early 1990s, and succeeded only once in inflicting casualties, 12 dead and 54 seriously injured, in a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. An attack with more conventional weapons could have been far more deadly.
The best way to keep the risk small is to be prepared. The federal government has sharply increased its spending on research and emergency response. It is working to improve detection and has put in place teams and equipment to move rapidly to the scene of an attack. It has started the production of more vaccine for smallpox, perhaps the most worrisome bioterrorism threat.
There's more worth doing. The best defense against the bioterrorism threat is a vigorous public health system. Those in the system -- doctors, nurses, clinics, laboratories -- have the front-line role in detecting an attack, stopping its spread and treating the victims, as they are now doing in Florida.
But that system has been allowed to shrivel in an era that scorned government and taxes. And as California public health officers pointed out at a meeting on bioterrorism last Thursday, the increased attention to preparing for a terror attack has yet to translate into dollars at the local level, where they are most needed.
Many people have rushed in the last month to buy gas masks. No one can be certain whether those people have overestimated the risk of a germ or poison attack. But this much is clear: You can't protect yourself from bioterrorism with a gas mask if you don't know you've been attacked. Whether the right attitude now is alarm or calm, the right response is a beefed-up public health system capable of detecting and stopping disease -- whether it's spread by terrorists or nature.
(Compiled by United Press International)