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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK
Anthrax fears shake world
A Taiwanese post office worker
In some cities, postal workers have donned masks
Confirmed cases of anthrax in the United States have sparked panic across an already jittery world, and encouraged hoaxers to make the most of mounting insecurity.

From Brussels to Bangkok, citizens have been warned to look out for suspicious packages or envelopes possibly containing the deadly substance, which has already claimed one life in the United States.

These practical jokers should know they are going to face jail sentences

Belgian Deputy PM Laurette Onkelinkx

On Monday, the scare spread into the upper political echelons when a letter opened in the office of US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was discovered to contain anthrax.

German authorities meanwhile were testing a white powder found in the office post room of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has wholeheartedly backed the US strikes on Afghanistan. But officials say they are expecting a false alarm.

In France, police evacuated hundreds of people and sent dozens off for medical tests after suspect powder was sent to addresses which included the French Space Agency and the College de France, a research institute.

In Switzerland, an employee at the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis is receiving precautionary medical treatment after he received a "suspicious letter" containing an unidentified powder.

There have also been other scares within the Americas.

The Argentine news agency Telam reported that at least a dozen people were hospitalised with eye irritation and respiratory complaints when white powder was found during the counting at polling stations in Buenos Aires province.

And in Canada, a section of the parliament building was evacuated and 35 employees rushed to a decontamination unit after an envelope containing powder was found.

'Practical jokers'

But it appears that white powder has been providing hoaxers with ample opportunity for bluffs.

In Australia, more than a dozen buildings - including US and British consulates - were evacuated in scares which now appear to be hoaxes.

Two dozen people underwent decontamination.

People leaving a Beijing post office with parcels
China has ordered new quarantine checks on suspicious mail from abroad
At the Vienna international airport in Austria there was another false alarm when a powder was discovered at an information desk.

The terminal was evacuated while the substance was analysed in a laboratory.

Six letters in Israel have been sent to laboratories, and sent back again after they tested negative.

But no sooner had they been returned, unidentified powder suspected to contain anthrax spores was found on an Israeli cargo plane.

In Belgium the authorities have already started drawing up tougher laws against hoaxers after a series of envelopes containing harmless white powder were delivered to various buildings, including private homes and banks.

"These practical jokers should know that they are going to face jail sentences," said Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinkx.

Heightened security

Despite the rash of false alarms, citizens are being told to keep their eyes open.

Security has been stepped up across Asia.

In Hong Kong the authorities have warned people to look out for suspicious letters or parcels, and not to open anything from obscure sources. Meanwhile in China checks have been ordered on suspicious mail.

Japan has tightened postal checks and urged its citizens to report all suspicious mail to the police.

Post offices are using x-ray machines to screen all international mail and parcels that have no return address, and at the central post office in Tokyo, workers have started wearing masks.

In South Korea all major public and private facilities in the capital - such as subway stations, cinemas, department stores - have been asked to hold at least one drill by November. They have been told to stock up on gas masks.

In Thailand and the Philippines, people have been advised to inspect their post carefully for stains or powder marks before opening.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Government has said it will co-operate fully with US investigations into a letter bearing a Malaysian postmark, containing anthrax, which was sent to an office of software giant Microsoft in Reno, Nevada.

But Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he was still waiting for the US to display the evidence.

"They don't give us any information," he said. "Once we get the information, we will investigate."

The BBC's Fiona Werge
"No cases of anthrax have actually turned up outside America"
See also:

14 Oct 01 | Americas
NY urged not to panic over anthrax
12 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: A widespread threat?
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: How do you stop it?
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax as a biological weapon
25 Jul 01 | Scotland
Britain's 'Anthrax Island'
15 Oct 01 | Health
Q&A: Anthrax infection
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