Today's Health Highlights: Oct. 27, 2001
Hunt Is On For 2nd Anthrax Letter World Trade Center Contaminants Revealed Anthrax Vaccine Shipments Await Government OK
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:
Investigators Weigh Possibility of Second Anthrax Letter
Did a second anthrax-laden letter as potent as the one sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle earlier this month make its way through the postal system in Washington, D.C.?
Investigators are pursuing that possibility following the inhalation anthrax contamination this week of a State Department employee who worked far from Daschle's Capitol Hill office, where 29 people were exposed to the potentially fatal disease, The New York Times reported today.
Worried that there might be a second anthrax-contaminated letter -- or more -- not yet discovered, the search for the bacteria widened today to thousands of businesses in Washington and 30 mail distribution centers.
The U.S. Postal Service has also signed a $40 million contract to buy eight electron-beam devices to sanitize letters and packages. The equipment will be used first in Washington, where the anthrax scare has spread from mail centers for Congress and the White House to the Supreme Court and the CIA, the Associated Press reported.
And >CNN reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have switched to doxycycline as "the antibiotic of choice" for combating anthrax infection. Health officials had been prescribing the drug Cipro, but made the switch because the anthrax strain that has been used in the three-week-old bioterror campaign is sensitive to a wide range of antibiotics. And doxycycline has fewer side effects than Cipro, health officials said.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, quoting top law enforcement officials, reported today that the anthrax attacks in Washington, New York City and Florida are probably the work of United States extremists with no ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
"Everything seems to lean toward a domestic source. Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist type operation," a senior official was quoted as saying.
Officials with the FBI and CIA are considering many possible suspects, including associates of right-wing hate groups and people in the United States who are sympathetic with extremist Islamic causes, the newspaper said.
None of the 60 to 80 threat reports gathered every day by U.S. intelligence agencies has linked the letters containing anthrax spores to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Also, the spore samples provide no links to a foreign government or lab, The Post reported.
U.S. officials say bin Laden was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.
The AP also reported that the FBI and federal health officials were taking environmental samples today at a post office near Princeton, N.J., the second postal facility in the state where anthrax has been found.
A single colony of anthrax was found in a mail bin at the post office, according to preliminary test results announced yesterday by state health officials. Anthrax previously had been found at the regional postal facility in nearby Hamilton, the starting point of three anthrax-tainted letters sent to New York City and Washington.
Also, the AP reported that health officials have ordered anthrax testing at thousands more mail rooms across the Washington area but continue to insist that postal customers had very little risk of contracting the disease.
Concerns over the mail delivery system continue to spread, now that anthrax has been detected at more than 10 postal facilities in the Washington area. Health officials hope to stop its spread with an escalation of testing and treatment, the AP reported.
"We're getting in front of the fire," said Dr. Patrick Meehan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But he warned that thousands more people who work with the mail will need to begin taking preventive antibiotics. "It could be an astronomical number," he added.
Officials said they would begin testing between 2,000 and 4,000 sites that receive mail from the Brentwood postal processing facility in Northeast Washington -- including, possibly, large apartment buildings -- and are recommending antibiotics for all who work at them.
The latest government landmark building to fall victim to the anthrax bioterror campaign was the U.S. Supreme Court building. Officials ordered it shut yesterday for testing after a trace amount of anthrax was detected in an offsite mail center that serves the court building.
Postal workers in New York City have threatened a lawsuit to force the government to close a large processing center where four machines were found to be contaminated with anthrax. The Postal Service plans to seal off the affected machines for decontamination, but says the rest of the building is safe, the AP reported.
The nine-story facility covers two city blocks, employs about 5,000 people and handles all incoming and outgoing mail for Manhattan and the Bronx -- about 20 million pieces a day.
To date, inhalation anthrax, the most dangerous form of the disease, has killed three people -- two postal workers at the Brentwood facility in Washington and an editor for a Florida-based publisher of supermarket tabloids.
World Trade Center Contaminants Revealed
Poisonous chemicals and metals at the World Trade Center attack site are being released into the ground and air at levels that exceed federal safety standards, newly released documents show.
The Associated Press reports a New York Daily News story yesterday shows that low levels of contaminants also have been detected in the Hudson River and its sediment. The newspaper's findings were based on documents that include hundreds of pages of raw data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The documents, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, show the presence of soil and air contaminants including dioxins, PCBs, lead and chromium -- sometimes at levels exceeding EPA standards. In addition, fires still burning beneath the wreckage of the buildings are releasing relatively high levels of benzene, which can cause leukemia and other diseases from long-term exposure.
New York City and federal officials said that there was no immediate risk to people away from the Trade Center debris, and that workers at the site were being protected by respirators and other equipment. An EPA spokeswoman said yesterday the agency was still examining its data.
Anthrax Vaccine Shipments Await Government Blessing
The federal government is working frantically to give the nation's only anthrax vaccine maker the go-ahead to send fresh batches of the vaccine to American soldiers by next month, HealthDay reports.
But even if Michigan-based Bioport Corp. is shipping the vaccine by Thanksgiving, as company and government officials hope, don't look for it in your local pharmacy.
The company has an exclusive, $29 million contract to supply the U.S. military -- and only the U.S. military. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use the vaccine in special cases where people have been exposed to anthrax and are allergic to antibiotics. The FDA has 30 days to respond to the request.