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Anthrax Letter Found Near Conn. Victim's Home

Officials can find no obvious link in mail discovered at home two miles away from latest victim

FRIDAY, Nov. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Health officials say they've found traces of anthrax on a letter sent to a home near that of the 94-year-old Connecticut woman who died of the disease. But they're not sure what, if anything, that suggests.

The contaminated letter was found at a home in Seymour, about two miles from the Oxford home of Ottilie Lundgren, says Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one in the Seymour house has fallen ill, officials say, and the letter is now in the custody of the state health department. The letter was typical and not threatening, Koplan says.

Koplan adds that postal investigators have confirmed that the letter passed through the same Trenton, N.J., sorting facility that handled anthrax-laden mail destined for Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy in Washington, D.C.

Other than the proximity, officials could find no obvious connection between Lundgren and the unidentified residents of the home in which the mail was found.

The discovery of the killer germ in Connecticut hints that Lundgren, who died Nov. 21 of inhalation anthrax, may have been infected by cross-contaminated mail. Yet searches of her home and the few places she went -- such as a beauty parlor she visited weekly -- have come up clean, officials say.

Koplan says the prospect of a double cross-contamination is "highly unlikely." Still, the case has left officials bewildered, and Koplan wouldn't rule out the prospect that Lundgren was killed by anthrax spores that shifted from a tainted letter to her own.

Lundgren's advanced age has led investigators to speculate that a relatively small, or even tiny, amount of the germ might have been sufficient to overwhelm her weakened immune system.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, calls the scenario that a cross-contaminated letter could deliver enough anthrax to be deadly "a hypothetical based on a hypothetical."

On the other hand, he says, if infection did occur that way, a lethal dose of anthrax could be extremely low for certain people. Monkey studies have shown that 50 percent of animals exposed to between 8,000 and 10,000 anthrax spores will die, officials say. Whether the same holds for humans isn't clear.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, director of the office of Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, says the only conclusion to draw from the latest discovery is that anthrax has been found in the general vicinity of Lundgren's house.

"And I don't think we can go very much beyond that," he says.

Moreover, Henderson says, it would be a stretch to claim that, because the source of Lundgren's illness hasn't been identified, the elderly woman must have been infected with only a small number of spores. "To leap to the conclusion that a very few poses a risk goes beyond the science at this point," he says.

Equally puzzling to health officials is the death of 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen, a New York hospital worker who on Oct. 31 became the fourth person to die of inhalation anthrax in the bioterror attack. Investigators have been unable to find the source of the bacteria that killed Nguyen, and Koplan says there is no evidence that she had a compromised immune system.

What To Do

What should you do if you're elderly or have a weakened immune system? Officials downplay the risk of anthrax from cross-contamination of mail.

However, Koplan says people worried about the disease should wash their hands after handling their mail, and try not to open envelopes too close to their face.

For more on anthrax, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also has the latest information on the bioterror investigation.

To learn more about the microbe, try the University of Wisconsin.

SOURCES: Teleconference with Jeffrey Koplan, M.D., director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; D.A. Henderson, M.D., M.P.H., director, Office of Public Health Preparedness, Department of Health and Human Services; and Anthony Fauci, M.D., director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
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