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Anthrax Cases Continue to Puzzle the Public

Aired October 13, 2001 - 11:10   ET


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: A number of suspicious envelopes have turned up at media outlets in the past few days -- all of them containing a white powder. CNN's Maria Hinojosa is live at NBC's headquarters in New York with an update on the envelope that showed up there -- Maria

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jeanne, here at Rockefeller Plaza things seem to be getting back to normal -- people are skating in the ice skating rink, tourists are on the tourist buses but 24 hours ago the news broke that here at the NBC News room an employee had tested positive for anthrax. And while things seem to be getting back to normal today something not so normal is happening today -- employees of NBC are continuing to come in here to be tested for possibly being exposed.

So far at least 200 employees have been tested an put on antibiotics protectively. Now at least that includes certainly Anchor Tom Brokaw.

What we do know is that two letters were received by Tom Brokaw's assistant -- one with a white powdery substance, another with a sand- like substance. The employees were spoken to by the CDC yesterday and are having varied reactions to this. Some of them clearly more panicked more concerned. Some who have worried that they have been sick over the past few days. Another employee who I spoke to said she felt absolutely calm -- not worried at all.

But among those emotionally charged by this situation -- Anchor Tom Brokaw.


TOM BROKAW, ANCHOR, NBC NEWS: Thank you for your concern. She has been, as she always is, a rock. And she's been an inspiration to us all. But this is so unfair and so outrageous and so maddening it's beyond my ability to express it in socially acceptable terms.

So we'll just reserve our thoughts and our prayers for our friend and her family.


HINOJOSA: At "The New York Times" today the air quality tests are complete and have come back negative for anthrax, this after a letter containing white powder was received by Reporter Judith Miller yesterday morning. And "The New York Times" building went into lock down. Now Reporter Judith Miller who has covered and reported extensively on biological weapons said the letter also contained future threats against the United States and mentioned specifically the Sears Tower in Chicago and President Bush.

Mrs. Miller and 30 other employees were tested for anthrax and also given antibiotics protectively but "The New York Times" newsroom is open -- functioning back to normal. And the test results on the white powdery substance are expected to come in sometime this weekend at the latest on Monday.

Meanwhile Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has yet again tried to calm New Yorkers.


RUDY GIULIANI, MAYOR, NEW YORK CITY: We've got to get used to this -- I mean, this is -- we're going to be dealing with this. Anthrax is not contagious. Anthrax is treatable with antibiotics. And as long as we have the right monitoring systems in place and we become alert to it, you know, we'll be able to deal with this.


HINOJOSA: And deal with is we will as some New Yorkers and tourists try to get back to normal while others remain a little bit more fearful staying at home. Back to you in the studio.

MESERVE: Maria, one question for you. Back to NBC for a moment -- the employee there apparently was exposed at the end of September. Employees were only told yesterday. Are any of them expressing some displeasure at the delay or some concern?

HINOJOSA: Well, there have been reports that, yes, the letter was received on September 21st and was not tested until two weeks later. But we haven't been able to speak to many of the NBC News employees -- they're really keeping a tight lip. But I would imagine that the concern that there was a time lapse before they were alerted, before the white powdery substance was tested- to be of great concern. Jeanne?

MESERVE: Maria Hinojosa in New York -- thank you. And now back to Marty in Atlanta.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Test results are expected today on another suspicious letter that showed up at the offices of a subsidiary of the computer giant Microsoft. Officials in Nevada where the offices are located say that the letter looked like it contained a check but something about it just wasn't right.

CNN's James Hattori is following developments for us in Reno. He joins us now live -- James.

JAMES HATTORI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Marty. This is a very different situation than from what's going on in New York and Florida. First of all, no one here to the knowledge of health officials, has tested positive for exposure to anthrax.

Second of all, the testing of materials that they're suspicious of -- excuse me -- the first round of tests proved -- led them to believe there was anthrax. A second round of tests led to believe it was negative. But officials here in Washoe County here in Nevada expect a third conclusive test to have those results sometime later this morning perhaps in about an hour an a half or so.

Now what they're testing is a letter that was received by the Microsoft office here in Reno about three weeks ago or a few weeks ago. It was originally though sent from the office here in Reno to a vendor -- a company in Malaysia, which is a country where cells of the Osama bin Laden Al Qaeda network are known to operate.

Now inside that envelope was a check. That check was returned to the Microsoft office a few weeks ago. It sat around in somebody's office and -- but when somebody finally got around to it, it just didn't look right. It had been opened, the check was still inside. There was also -- and this is the strange part -- some pornographic material. And that's the suspicious material that they're testing -- that initially tested positive and the second round of testing indicated it was negative.

One other thing is that the contents of the letter appeared as though they had been wet at some point -- dunked in water or some other liquid and then dried out but there was no powdery residue, which has been common in other cases of anthrax.

Now the contents were tested -- there were conflicting results. Health officials say though that even if there was anthrax that the risk posed to those who were exposed to it were very small -- that the risks were very small to anyone who might have handled the letter.


BARBARA HUNT, DISTRICT HEALTH OFFICER: At this point we're assuming that it would have been inhaled. If indeed anyone has actually been at risk for infection -- as I said earlier, the circumstances of this letter indicate to us because there was no powder, there was not residue, there was nothing that appeared to be airborne we are, for that reason, saying that we think that even persons who had direct contact with the contents of this envelope are at low risk for infection even if it turns out to be a positive anthrax.


HATTORI: Now according to health officials only about six people at the Microsoft office might have come in contact with the envelope. But, again, so far no one has tested positive for exposure. So we're waiting for the results of those tests -- the conclusive tests hopefully. And we hope to expect --we hope to hear those results within about an hour an a half's time. Marty, back to you.

SAVIDGE: All right, James, we'll wait to hear on that. Thank you very much. Well, the nation's certainly getting a crash course on anthrax. CNN medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here to give us more insight into this bacteria.


SAVIDGE: Good morning again.

GUPTA: Good morning. There are three ways you can get the anthrax. It's one bacteria but three different ways you can get it -- either inhale it, ingest it -- what we've been hearing so much now in New York -- actually get it through your skin -- the so-called cutaneous version of anthrax.


SANJAY GUPTA (voice-over): This is the most common and treatable form of the disease. It is very different from inhalation anthrax -- the form that killed the Florida man and reached two others who worked in the same building. None of the forms of anthrax are contagious from one person to another. Cutaneous infection most commonly occurs if the anthrax spores or bacteria come in contact with an open wound, cut or sore in the skin.

Anthrax is unlikely to infect a person if it merely touches healthy or intact skin. Most cutaneous anthrax cases are from contact with an infected animal. However, it can also be weaponized and delivered through, for example, powder contaminated with anthrax spores.

The incubation period ranges from 12 hours to five days. At first the patient may notice an itch, a rash, which may eventually turn black. If left untreated the anthrax spores can travel through the blood stream and get into the lymph glands. The bacteria can infiltrate the body's immune system, causing shock and in some cases death.

Several types of antibiotics are effective to treat the cutaneous form of the disease including penicillin and Ciprofloxacin, also known as Cipro.


GUPTA: And even without antibiotic treatment three out of four patients will do just fine -- they'll beat the infection. With antibiotics nearly everyone will recover.

SAVIDGE: We've got some poll results that were taken -- actually CNN and Time did this yesterday. We're going to take a look at them. We can talk about them. They're encouraging because they seem to imply that the message is getting across.

And what initially we say is someone in your family will be exposed to anthrax. Are you very concerned, somewhat concerned, not concerned. And there you see 47 percent of people say they are concerned but the majority -- 52 percent -- they're saying they're not concerned.

GUPTA: And we've had one person in 300 million who actually died from anthrax and have had three other people who have been exposed. One person got a skin infection. Very small numbers, Marty, here if you think about things -- the flu, car accidents -- all those sorts of things certainly much more concerning than anthrax at this point.

SAVIDGE: The next question that we asked was considering -- were you considering purchasing something like anthrax vaccine or a gas mask?

Twenty-five percent say that they were considering it, 17 percent -- they were considering the vaccine -- 17 percent said gas masks. Where would you get a vaccine to buy?

GUPTA: Well, it's very interesting. We've done a lot of research on this vaccine. It's actually owned by the BioPort Corporation -- a corporation in Lansing, Michigan. And actually the Department of Defense -- the military -- owns the vaccine. It's really only available right now to military personnel, some farm workers who come into contact with it. It's not really available for the civilians.

But the important point here as well is that it really doesn't take effect for 18 months. So it's not something that you can go out and get tomorrow and protect yourself for next week.

So vaccine not -- 25 percent only wanting the vaccine I can understand that as being a responsible number.

SAVIDGE: But this -- you couldn't go out as the average person and just say, "Let me have a prescription," or, "Let me buy it on the black market," or something like that. There is no way to get it.

GUPTA: That's right. It actually involves a series of shots over 18 months but none of those vaccines are actually available to the general public right now.

SAVIDGE: OK. And then another one here -- do you think that anthrax is contagious? And the reassuring answers here -- 19 percent said yes. But the correct answer is no -- 70 percent there. But I have a question for you, why is it not contagious?

GUPTA: It's interesting -- what happens is this particular bacteria -- it'll get into your lungs and subsequently into your -- all the way down to the base of your lungs. When that happens the spores sort of stick around there. They're going to be very hard to either cough or sneeze back up. They may cough an occasional spore back up but the other person -- the person who they're thinking about spreading it to would need to breathe in 5,000 -- 10,000 spores. That's not going to happen. So it's really not contagious from person to person.

SAVIDGE: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thank you again for joining us. And we have to be encouraged by what we see in the reflected answers of the poll.

GUPTA: That's right. It is reassuring.

SAVIDGE: Thank you.




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