Test in Conn. positive for anthrax

Nov. 30, 2001 at 4:47 PM
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HARTFORD, Conn., Nov. 30 (UPI) -- A trace of anthrax was found on a letter at a home about a mile from where an elderly Connecticut woman died of inhalation anthrax but federal health officials said Friday it provides no new clues to how the woman contracted her infection.

Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said Friday the finding supports the theory there was cross contamination in the postal system from anthrax-laden letters sent to politicians in Washington and members of the media.

He said of the roughly 700 samples collected in Connecticut since Otillie Lundgren, 94, died Nov. 21, only one has come back positive for anthrax.

The positive sample was taken from a home in the Seymour-Oxford, Conn., area. The home was next to that of an elderly man who died of non-anthrax causes, but whose death was investigated as a suspected case of anthrax infection because of his symptoms. The samples were gathered as part of that investigation.

Rowland said a "tiny trace" of anthrax was found in the home, about a mile from where Lundgren lived, but that it was so small that it posed no danger to anyone.

"This small amount could not hurt anyone in the household," the governor said. He said he assumed if Lundgren did come in contact with some contaminated mail, her death most likely was due to her advanced age and weakened immune system.

"It continues to support the theory that mail can be cross contaminated," Rowland said.

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the finding "interesting" but indicated it still did not bring investigators any closer to finding out how Lundgren was exposed to the pathogen.

"This is not an unexpected finding," Koplan said Friday. "Cross contamination is a potential, albeit low risk."

"We have found this one letter with anthrax on it in Connecticut and this doesn't focus an answer on what caused the case in this woman in Connecticut," he said.

The contaminated letter found in Connecticut was among some 300 processed in Trenton at the same time as the letter containing anthrax was sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The Leahy letter was expected to be opened sometime Friday.

U.S. Postal Service officials could find only the one letter to the zip code nearby Lundgren sent Oct. 9 but are searching though additional records to determine if any letters were sent to Lundgren's zip sent after Oct. 9.

Koplan said despite some anecdotal evidence that points to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems as being more susceptible to anthrax infection, the agency did not have enough information to make any public health recommendations regarding steps these people should take when opening mail -- or if they should be opening mail at all.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, said since there is no evidence showing the minimum number of spores required for anthrax infection in humans, the precautions people take will depend on their own situation.

"It really depends on your level is comfortable with," he said "The closer you want to get to zero risk, that's how you handle it." The risk is not zero, because we still have unanswered questions."

The Connecticut Public Health Department still has not released results of tests on two vials of tissue labeled "anthrax" found in a graduate student's lab freezer at the University of Connecticut.

The vials were seized Tuesday by federal investigators who are looking into the possible mishandling of anthrax at the school's pathobiology lab, which has remained closed since Tuesday.

The graduate student, Tomas Foral, apparently set the vials aside for possible later study even though they were supposed to be destroyed, the Hartford Courant reported.

The tissue samples were taken from a cow during an autopsy in 1968, the Courant said.

It was not immediately determined if the Czech-born U.S. citizen would face any federal charges.

Foral discovered five to seven vials in a canister labeled "anthrax" while cleaning a freezer in the lab's basement, and was told by professors to destroy them in an autoclave. Instead, he put two of them in his personal freezer alongside samples of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, the Courant said.

There they remained for six weeks until authorities began investigating Lundgren's death. The Courant said the anthrax was not in the powdery form blamed for five deaths in the past two months.

A total of 18 anthrax infections have been confirmed, including 11 inhalation infections and seven of the less serious cutaneous or skin form of the disease. Five people, including Lundgren, have died.

(Reported by Dave Haskell in Boston and Ellen Beck In Washington)

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