Anthrax Strikes NBC News Employee

Fourth case, and second media group hit; victim recovering

FRIDAY, Oct. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- An NBC News employee in New York City has tested positive for a form of anthrax that enters through the skin, the network announced today.

The case marks the second time in as many weeks that the rare disease, long feared as a potential bioterrorism weapon, has struck a major media outlet. It is also the first time a case of anthrax has been reported in New York City in 50 years, according to the Health Department.

The victim, an unidentified female employee of the "Nightly News" show, "is in good health, in good care, and is getting all the health treatment," says NBC President Andrew Lack.

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New York City Department of Health have sealed off the third floor of NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center.

Officials say they're looking at a piece of mail containing a suspicious powder that the network received 17 days ago. New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced at a news conference at NBC headquarters today that the substance tested negative for anthrax. But Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says the CDC has yet to finish its analysis.

Giuliani says that any exposure would be contained, given the time that has elapsed since the letter arrived. "If anyone else was going to be infected, it would have happened by now," he says.

Giuliani also announced that the New York Times reported receiving a suspicious letter today, but the newspaper says its employees have been allowed back into the building.

The NBC case comes on the heels of three anthrax cases, including one fatality, stemming from the mail room at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla. The company publishes several of the nation's most popular supermarket tabloids, including the National Enquirer and The Sun.

The NBC employee has a different form of anthrax than the three American Media employees. The NBC worker has the more common form of the bacterial disease, in which the infecting agent, Bacillus anthracis, makes its way into the body through a cut in the skin. About 95 percent of anthrax cases are of this type. In Florida, the victims inhaled spores of the bacteria. A third form of anthrax can come through eating infected meat, though no such cases have been reported in the United States.

Cutaneous anthrax is considered less of a threat to human life than the inhaled form, experts say. It usually makes itself known within a week after exposure to the bacteria, typically with a fever and a bump resembling an insect bite that develops into a dark, itchy ulcer.

The NBC employee began feeling ill around Sept. 28, and has been treated with antibiotics since Oct. 1, Giuliani says. A biopsy was performed two days ago, and the results came back early today, Thompson adds.

The FBI has launched a separate criminal investigation in New York that will coordinate with the Florida case, Attorney General John Ashcroft says. "At this point, the source of the anthrax is being investigated and has not yet been determined," he says. However, Ashcroft also says officials are focusing on a specific piece of mail that arrived at NBC on Sept. 25.

Ashcroft says investigators have no solid evidence linking the New York case to the Florida cases. Barry Mawn, who heads the FBI's New York office, adds that the agency so far can find "nothing that ties it hard and firm" to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Amid that overwhelming backdrop, the public was urged to remain calm. "It's got to cause concern for our nation," President Bush acknowledged at the White House. Although "our nation is still in danger," he added, the government is doing "everything in our power" to respond quickly.

"We cannot let the terrorists lock our country down," Bush said, adding that Americans should go about their daily business as usual.

"We should promote caution, not incite paralysis," Ashcroft says.

Although no hard link has been made between the exposures and anything sent through the U.S. Postal Service, investigators are urging people to keep a closer eye on their mail.

The Postal Service delivers 208 billion pieces of mail annually, and Ken Newman, the deputy chief postal inspector for investigations, says the agency is doing "everything we can to help insure" what he calls "part of the fabric of our country."

But, he adds, "it's important for people to exercise care and caution" with both personal and business mail.

Possible signs for concern include foul-smelling, stained, or lopsided envelopes, as well as those marked "personal" or "confidential." Also, mail bearing postmarks that differ from the city of the return addressee should raise a red flag, Newman adds.

People who've handled a suspicious letter or parcel should wash their hands "vigorously and thoroughly," Newman suggests.

Ashcroft cautions that people should not shake, taste, lick, or touch suspicious powder that arrives by mail.

The New York Times Co. says that one of the newspaper's correspondents, Judith Miller, received an envelope today containing a white powdery substance. The package was turned over to investigators, the statement says, and tests of the air in the newsroom were negative for any substance.

What To Do

Officials continue to advise against stocking up on Cipro, the antibiotic given to workers in the exposed buildings. Thompson says that anyone who may have come into contact with a possible suspicious substance should see a doctor immediately if they have or get "a small lesion that's dark in color, that's itchy."

To read more about anthrax, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more on how to defend against bioterrorism, visit the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies or the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

For more on the various bioterror weapons, try the American Medical Association.

For more on anthrax and the mail, try the U.S. Postal Service.

SOURCES: Televised news conferences with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, NBC President Andrew Lack, Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, New York FBI chief Barry Mawn, President Bush and Ken Newman, deputy chief postal inspector for investigations, United States Postal Service; New York Times, NBC statements; New York City Department of Health Web site; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Consumer News