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Anthrax Spores Appear in Russia

Health: Experts find 'negligible' traces of the bacterium in a U.S. Consulate mailbag in Yekaterinburg, site of a deadly outbreak in '79.

November 07, 2001|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In the second case of anthrax in the former Soviet Union in a week, Russian experts in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg found spores of the deadly disease in a U.S. diplomatic mailbag.

No staff members at the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg exhibited symptoms of the illness, but one employee is taking antibiotics as a precaution, according to a statement from the consulate Tuesday. The State Center for Medical Epidemiological Control in Yekaterinburg did tests on six mailbags sent to the consulate from Washington, one of which tested positive.

The bags arrived in Yekaterinburg on Oct. 25, and the first tests were performed the following day.

The consulate requested the tests after a U.S. announcement that State Department mail-handling facilities in Washington and Sterling, Va., had been contaminated with anthrax.

The source of the anthrax spores in the Yekaterinburg case was unknown, but they were found on the inside of the bag, according to the consulate statement.

A massive investigation is underway in the United States into the recent anthrax attacks that have resulted in 17 confirmed cases and four deaths, but authorities don't know who has been behind the assaults.

The first tests on all six bags proved negative, but a second set of more sophisticated tests found traces of anthrax in one bag.

"We understand that, since two tests were required to detect spores, the amount of anthrax in the bag was negligible," the consulate statement said.

Medical experts in Moscow and Yekaterinburg advised the consulate that only one staff member required antibiotics. The anthrax scare has spread around the world, with numerous reports of white powder in mail but few confirmed cases.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of anyone outside America contracting anthrax through the mail.

The discovery of spores of anthrax in Yekaterinburg comes several days after traces of it were found in a diplomatic mailbag at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania. The mail room there was later disinfected on instructions from the State Department.

Victor Romanenko, the deputy chief of the epidemiological center in Yekaterinburg, said in a phone interview that the number of spores was "very insignificant."

"The consulate didn't produce any letters or documents for examination," he said.

"But we are not going to press them to do it because we are absolutely sure that there is no danger for the population of our region."

Yekaterinburg, the hometown of former President Boris N. Yeltsin, was the site of the deadliest anthrax outbreak on record.

In 1979, at least 64 people died when anthrax spores leaked from a top-secret facility making weapons-grade anthrax, in breach of an international treaty.

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