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WHO tries to calm anthrax fears

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Envelopes containing suspicious powder have been found across the world  

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The World Health Organization has said the public should be vigilant but not panic in wake of anthrax cases in the United States.

"The advice is to be vigilant, be cautious... (but) mass hysteria and panic is not a sensible response," a spokesman for the Geneva-based United Nations body said on Tuesday.

At least 12 people have been exposed to anthrax, a potentially lethal germ, in the United States where one of the victims has died.

U.S. authorities are treating the incidents as criminal attacks and have not ruled out a possible link to groups behind the suicide hijackings on September 11 in which more than 5,000 people died in the U.S..

There has also been a spate of alerts and scare elsewhere -- in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, France, the UK, Australia, Brazil, Israel -- all of which proved to be false alarms.

Iain Simpson, WHO spokesman for communicable diseases, told a news conference that doctors in the U.S. and Europe had all the information needed to spot any possible case of anthrax.

If caught early enough, the various kinds of anthrax can be treated with antibiotics.

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However, in the case of the most deadly inhaled form, the strain that killed a man in Florida, this is difficult because the initial symptoms can be confused with a common cold.

Simpson said that WHO was urging people not to rush out and buy any antibiotic without first consulting a doctor because they could take the wrong one.

Demand for one of the best known antibiotics -- ciproflaxin -- has soared in the U.S. as worried citizens seek to protect themselves and their families against attack.

"The type of antibiotic to be taken depends on the diagnosis. You could be taking the wrong one," he said.

Although the fear of anthrax was understandable, the number of cases reported was still very small, Simpson added.

"People are getting scared unnecessarily. The most important thing to remember is that it is not contagious," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, it emerged that Sweden was the latest country to be affected by anthrax scares sweeping across Europe.

Police seized four suspicious letters and forwarded them for checks by biological warfare experts.

Local media reported on that the four letters were addressed to corporations, at least one a U.S. company.

In Germany, tests on a white powder found in the mailroom at German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's offices found no trace of anthrax or any other dangerous substance, the Associated Press reported the government as saying on Tuesday.

The mailroom at the federal chancellery in Berlin was sealed off on Monday after two postal workers discovered the powder, which had trickled out of an envelope.

In a separate incident, a white powder found on an aircraft that had originated from Germany was tested by the authorities in Brazil.

Preliminary tests determined the suspicious powder was not anthrax, the country's health minister said on Monday.

In France police evacuated 600 people from the offices of the French Space Agency, and others were ushered from a financial institution, a school and a tax collection agency after powder arrived in the mail, AP reported.

Tests on the powder have so far tested negative for the deadly spores, French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Tuesday.

"There is nothing in these powders. This was confirmed overnight," Kouchner said on French radio France Inter. "Further tests are under way, but initial examination has shown up nothing for the moment."

Meanwhile, an employee at Swiss healthcare group Novartis in Basel underwent preventive medical treatment after receiving a suspicious letter containing an unidentified powder.

The company said there was no reason at this stage to link the letter, received on October 9, with confirmed anthrax cases in the United States.

On Sunday more than 200 people were evacuated from the UK's Canterbury Cathedral when a man was seen to sprinkle white powder in a chapel. Tests later proved negative.

Beyond Europe, Reuters reported that Israeli police sent six letters for anthrax tests on Monday as Israel became anxious about possible bio-terrorist attacks.

Police were called to examine more than a dozen letters received by Israelis in recent days that bore suspicious signs such as too much postage paid or an unknown sender, a police spokesman told the news agency.

In Jerusalem, a newspaper office was evacuated on Tuesday, after two suspicious envelopes, one containing an unidentified white powder, were found.

Police later said the incident was a hoax carried out by an employee. The false alarm was one of about a dozen in recent days in Israel and its settlements in the west bank.

In Australia, dozens of government workers took decontaminating showers on Monday after their office received a letter containing white powder, and a U.S. consulate was evacuated in a similar scare. Both turned out to be hoaxes.

In Canada, a section of the Parliament was closed on Monday after a worker developed a rash after opening mail in one of several anthrax scares nationwide.

Several ambulances and police vehicles went to one of the Parliamentary buildings in the centre of the capital after the feared anthrax exposure. Initial testing for anthrax spores was negative, said Anthony Dimonte, a spokesman for Ottawa's emergency services.

Also on Monday, two post offices in Toronto and one outside Montreal were evacuated when powdery substances were found by workers. Initial testing indicated those materials were harmless as well.

"We have, I wouldn't say a state of paranoia, but certainly there's a lot of anxiety out there," Canada Post spokesman John Caines told Reuters.


• World Health Organization
• U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention
• UK Chief Medical Officer
• UK Department of Health
• Novartis

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