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One year later: Anthrax lessons learned

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Have last years' anthrax attacks better prepared the U.S. for future biological attacks? CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports (October 4)
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Despite a massive investigation by the FBI, no arrests have yet been made one year after the anthrax attacks, CNN's Kelli Arena reports.
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(CNN) -- The first case of inhalation anthrax at American Media Inc. in Florida caught the nation off guard in October 2001. Experts struggled to learn more about the infectious disease as contaminated letters continued to turn up in New Jersey, New York, Washington D.C. and finally in Connecticut.

As Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "We were not as prepared for anthrax as we should have been."

Washington postal worker Leroy Richmond agrees. He was caught in the crossfire of anthrax letters and survived, but barely.

"It was 27 days I pray to God no one on the face of this earth will have to go through," he said.

Before it was all over, five people were dead, 22 infected, 17,000 false alarms and hoaxes had been reported and Americans everywhere were terrified to open their mail.

Jack Potter, U.S. postmaster general, tried to calm the nation's nerves, saying the simple tips outlined for handling letters made the mail safe.

But, in fact, the mail wasn't completely safe, and soon after, two postal workers in Washington died.

"If there was one communication lesson that we learned from anthrax, it's don't be afraid to say you don't know, don't panic, but don't inappropriately assure people when you don't have all the data," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, with the National Institutes of Health.

A more prepared country

Fauci said one positive result from the case is that today the country is more prepared for a bioterror attack.

"Now we have experience. We don't need to go to a 50-year-old textbook we know from last year," Fauci said.

Before last year's attacks, doctors trained in the United States weren't routinely taught to look for bioterrorism, such as attacks that cause inhalation anthrax. But now, universities across the country are changing the way they train doctors, incorporating bioterrorism diagnosis and treatments into medical classes.

Columbia University public health student Bridgette Murphy thinks the change in curriculum can only help. "Taking a class like this (bioterrorism) is going to prepare us and help us deal with what's to come," she said.

The future may hold another attack, but the response could be early detection and an improved anthrax vaccine.

The current vaccine, given to U.S. military troops, must be given in six doses over 18 months. A faster vaccine is needed, and it's getting closer to reality -- the government announced Thursday two new contracts to develop such a vaccine.

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