Facts Are the Antidote for Anthrax Scare

Wrong information stokes fear, say experts

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HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Oct. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- One person is dead, a handful are sick and dozens face potential illness. By the numbers, the anthrax outbreak doesn't seem likely to throw a nation into panic. But the disease packs an emotional punch, and public health experts warn that the only antidote against greater panic is accurate information. The record so far, they say, is far from ideal.

"In the same day, from seemingly good sources, we're getting contradictory comments," says Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Among other things, officials have called anthrax a virus, though it's a bacterium. They've been confused about whether the anthrax found in Senator Tom Daschle's office was "weapons-grade." When the first case of anthrax appeared in Florida, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson suggested it was a fluke of nature, despite strong odds against that. And why some people exposed to anthrax bacteria get more easily treated skin infections and some get more rapidly spreading and more deadly infections from inhaled bacteria wasn't immediately clear.

Bad information leads the public to draw its own conclusions, says John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "When there's a situation, and there are gaps or blanks in the information, people fill in the blanks. They tend to fill them in with the worst-case scenario."

Some local public health officials have urged common sense, but many citizens aren't listening. In the San Diego area, an airplane was delayed while a powdery substance on a tray table was tested. It turned out to be artificial sweetener. And a woman called authorities about a strange substance on an envelope. That turned out to be the remnants of Cheetos that her daughter had eaten.

The anthrax scare may be different than previous situations, like the poisoning of Tylenol pills or an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease, because, Rosenstock says, "If we heighten anxiety, and people start hoarding antibiotics, taking them inappropriately, then we've caused real harm."

The overuse of antibiotics already has created drug-resistant strains of disease that are killing more people than the anthrax outbreak has or ever could, she says. Extensive use of antibiotics to treat anthrax could make the situation much worse, especially since many people will turn to "broad-spectrum" drugs, like Cipro, that kill a variety of types of germs at once. If those drugs stop working, doctors and pharmacists will have little left to treat other diseases.

Experts say federal health officials, who finally are beginning to make appearances on television, hold the key to accurate information.

"I share the sense that we haven't had a steady voice from the federal government on these issues," Rosenstock says.

Dr. Lee Riley, a professor of epidemiology at University of California at Berkeley, says too many people are trying to disseminate information. "There are police, politicians and FBI officials who should be educating the public, but they don't have the facts. It's really the non-public health officials who have been stirring up the confusion."

However, Pape says even accurate information can only go so far. "No matter how well you plan, there gets to be a point where the paranoia and everything happening can overwhelm any system."

What To Do

Learn more about anthrax in this fact sheet from National Public Radio.

How did anthrax get its name? What would happen if anthrax spores were spread by airplane? This fact sheet from the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies has the answers.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lee Riley, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, University of California at Berkeley; Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H., dean, School of Public Health, University of California at Los Angeles, and John Pape, epidemiologist, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Denver

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