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FBI official: Florida anthrax appears to be 'isolated incident'

FBI Anthrax
An FBI agent removes a bag of evidence from the American Media Building in Boca Raton, Florida.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Investigators have found no evidence linking the presence of anthrax at the offices of a supermarket tabloid publisher in Florida with the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, an FBI official said Thursday.

"The FBI has found no connection between the anthrax and the terror attacks of September 11," Tim Caruso, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told a House Intelligence Committee hearing on national security. "The anthrax appears to be an isolated incident."

A tabloid photo editor who died of inhalation anthrax and two co-workers who tested positive for the bacteria but show no symptoms of the disease apparently were infected with the same strain.

The strain also was found in the newspaper mail room and on the photo editor's computer keyboard, Caruso said.

People wanting substances checked for anthrax has at least doubled the workload at health departments. CNN's Thelma Gutierrez reports (October 11)

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Florida Department of Health anthrax hot line: 1-800-342-3557  
 Facts about anthrax
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. The spore produces a toxin that can be fatal.

How it spreads:
The spores can spread by inhalation or ingestion.

  • Symptoms usually appear within seven days.

  • Inhalation anthrax infection can start out like a common cold before acute symptoms such as severe breathing problems and shock.

  • Infection by consuming contaminated food is characterized by inflammation of the intestinal tract, leading to vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea.

  • Death can occur within 24 hours of the onset of acute symptoms.

  • Treatment:
    Antibiotics, including penicillin. A delay in the use of antibiotics -- even in terms of hours -- may lessen chances for survival.


    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Earlier Thursday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told CNN that investigators were treating the anthrax incident in Florida as a criminal matter but weren't prepared to label it a bioterrorism attack.

    "I don't think we can say it (is a bioterrorism attack) conclusively, but obviously anthrax is a very serious matter, and its presence would be very unusual in that setting," Ashcroft said. "We are treating this as a criminal matter and are investigating it with great care."

    Ashcroft added that any evidence connecting the anthrax with the hijackers who slammed commercial jets into the New York's World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside "would be of great interest to us and it would assist us very substantially in understanding and evaluating other circumstances."

    Ashcroft said, however, that the investigation is far from complete. The attorney general said federal investigators are working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify the strain of anthrax found at the offices of American Media, Inc, in Boca Raton, Florida.

    Sources said the strain appears to be the Ames strain of anthrax, discovered in the early 1950s by Ames, Iowa, researchers, who found it in the tissue of a dead animal.

    In the 50 years since then, the strain has been distributed to researchers across the world and used to make anthrax vaccines. If the strain proves to be the Ames variety, officials say, it would be unlikely that the anthrax was introduced naturally to the tabloid offices.

    "This is not a garden-variety situation," Ashcroft said. "It's very difficult to think even an organic, naturally-occurring presence could result in a concentration that affected the basis for exposure to three people. It's the reason we launched the investigation we have."

    Robert Stevens, 63, died of inhalation anthrax last Friday. A mailroom employee, 73-year-old Ernesto Blanco, later tested positive for exposure to the bacteria. Officials said Wednesday that a 35-year-old female employee, who asked not to be identified, also tested positive. Blanco and the unidentified employee are expected to make a full recovery, officials said.

    The AMI building, which houses The Sun and other tabloid newspapers, has been shut down while officials conduct a thorough investigation. Hundreds of employees have been tested for exposure.

    Ashcroft said investigators have found no other indication of "anthrax present in any other facility anywhere else in the country ... (or) in a very broad presence in the facility in Florida."

    Concern over the possibility of bioterrorist attacks has risen dramatically in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania -- and as the United States and its allies launched retaliatory strikes against those believed responsible for the attacks. Several false alarms have been reported, but the Florida cases are the only confirmed incidents.

    "There is no need for the American people to panic," Caruso told the House committee. "We are all on heightened alert and understandably react to occurrences in ways we may not have reacted prior to September 11."


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