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RESPONSE TO TERROR | ANTHRAX CASES

Anthrax Discovered in N.J. Mailbox, Letters in Asia

Disease: FBI director urges Americans to help in tracking down those who sent the bacteria. Another New York Post worker is infected.

November 03, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY and MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Traces of anthrax were found in the office mailbox of a New Jersey bookkeeper Friday, a discovery federal authorities said may "shed light" on one of two troubling cases of women who contracted anthrax despite having no direct connection to contaminated letters.

And the anthrax scare spread overseas as officials in Pakistan and India said preliminary tests indicated anthrax had been found in letters there, and investigations of suspicious letters were underway in at least three other countries.

Pakistani officials said they believe at least two people have been exposed to anthrax; both are taking antibiotics. Tests by a private laboratory concluded that anthrax was sealed inside at least four envelopes posted to a Dell computer office, a bank and the country's largest daily newspaper.

Government laboratories in Pakistan--where scientists have received instructions on anthrax testing via telephone from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--have found anthrax on one of the envelopes; the other three are still being tested, said Atta ur Rehman, Pakistan's minister of science and technology.

In India, the health secretary of a western state said initial tests of powder found in a letter to a government office tested positive for anthrax and more tests were being conducted.

It was unclear, however, whether any of the foreign letters were connected to letters sent through the U.S. mail system to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said Friday that his agency has been pursuing "more than a thousand leads, including more than 100 that have taken us overseas."

The discovery of contamination in the New Jersey mailbox, located in a complex where Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) has a district office, bolstered authorities' belief that a 51-year-old woman who worked there was infected with skin anthrax by mail that had come into contact with contaminated letters. All three tainted letters were processed at a nearby postal facility.

The New Jersey case has had widespread implications. At first, postal authorities and health officials had assured the public that there was virtually no risk of contracting anthrax from cross-contaminated mail. While postal officials and federal authorities have stressed the extremely low likelihood of contracting the disease that way, they have urged Americans to wash their hands after opening the mail.

"It's consistent with cross-contamination, and it's comforting to the rest of the people in the building that we only found that one spot positive," said Dr. George T. DiFerdinando, New Jersey's acting health commissioner. "At least there's some logic here, where in New York, it's more difficult. That's the much more puzzling case."

Unlike the New Jersey skin anthrax case, investigators in New York have offered no possible scenarios for how Kathy T. Nguyen, a 61-year-old hospital stockroom worker, might have contracted inhalation anthrax. An intense effort to explain how Nguyen could have come in contact with enough airborne anthrax spores to kill her has yet to yield any answers.

New York health officials said no traces of the deadly bacteria were found at her workplace, the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, where testing is complete. Hospital employees, patients and visitors who had been put on antibiotics as a precaution were told Friday to stop taking the medication.

Tests at the Bronx apartment building where Nguyen lived for two decades were not yet completed, although preliminary tests were negative. Nguyen's neighbors have been told they will receive antibiotics if contamination on the premises is found.

In a separate case, skin anthrax was confirmed by the CDC on Friday in another New York Post employee, a 34-year-old man who is now recovering. He had been listed Thursday as a suspected case and is believed to have come in contact with a letter mailed to the newspaper in September.

On Friday, Mueller and other top administration officials again acknowledged that they are no closer to solving the anthrax cases and appealed to the public for help.

Mueller expressed disappointment in the response so far to the $1-million reward for information leading to the arrest of the sender or senders of anthrax-laced letters that have killed four people and sickened at least 13 others.

At a White House briefing where he was joined by homeland security Director Thomas J. Ridge, Mueller urged "in the strongest terms possible every American to join us in tracking down those responsible for using anthrax to murder Americans."

Specifically, Mueller asked that people report suspicious behavior involving the mail or individuals knowledgeable about anthrax, and closely study the widely publicized images of the contaminated letters to compare the writing to "any handwriting that you may be able to recognize."

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