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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
Anthrax: A widespread threat?
The American Media Inc building in Boca Raton, Florida
Anthrax has occurred in two US offices recently
Anthrax has been discovered at two separate workplaces in the US, leading to fears of a deliberate infection attempt.

But a toxicologist has told BBC News Online that the risk of a widespread anthrax outbreak is low.

Dr Alastair Hay, professor of toxicology at Leeds University, said releasing anthrax in a form which could affect a large number of people was "problematic".

"If you have access to anthrax you could cause localised incidents involving a few people, but not hundreds or thousands."

Stolen samples

Someone intent on causing an anthrax outbreak would have three ways to access the bacteria, he said.

One was to find it in the environment - anthrax occurs naturally throughout the world and could be separated from soil or animal samples.

This, however, would be "complicated".

Professor Alastair Hay
Prof Hay: "Anthrax vaccine is very effective"

A second way would be for it to be supplied by a biological warfare programme - "it's difficult to know anything more about that because it is clandestine," Dr Hay said.

A third way, and one which Dr Hay thought would be more likely, would be for someone to steal a so-called reference collection.

These are cell cultures kept in hospitals or public health institutions, for checking suspected cases of the infection.

"There's one in most countries, and quite a few in several countries," he said. "And I understand that some are better controlled than others."

Aerosol problems

Anybody wanting to spread the spores in an office or underground train would have quite a difficult job, Dr Hay pointed out.

Microscopic view of anthrax bacteria
Anthrax is kept in several hospitals and laboratories

The Aum Shinri Kyo cult which killed 12 people on Japan's underground system in 1994 had failed at least half-a-dozen times to infect the system with anthrax.

Dr Hay said this was either because the strain was not virulent enough, or because they had problems getting it airborne.

"Inhalation anthrax is not a significant problem. It must be distributed in a very fine particle spray and that sort of technology is not generally available," he said.

Contaminating surfaces such as seats or keyboards was a different matter, however - it would be relatively simple to infect small numbers of people in this way.

But the dangers in contracting anthrax through the skin, rather than through the lungs, are much lower, said Dr Hay.

The symptoms - which begin with redness around the entrance point of the infection, followed by blistering - can be picked up very quickly.

The infected person can then be treated with antibiotics. Penicillin is effective in many cases.

Prophylaxis and vaccines

If a case has been confirmed in an office, public health officials can take swap samples to see if there are any spores left in the building.

Woman on the London Underground
It would be difficult to spread respiratory anthrax on an underground system

In the unlikely event that there are, Dr Hay said, workers can be put under surveillance for any symptoms, or put under preventative antibiotic treatment.

It would be possible to vaccinate workers if there were fears that a particular office was to be targeted, he said.

The vaccine had proved "very effective" for skin anthrax, although Dr Hay said there had not been enough cases to comment on its effect on respiratory anthrax.

"Here we're entering slightly unchartered territory," he said.

Professor Liam Donaldson, UK Chief Medical Officer
"We don't have any direct threat"
See also:

12 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax confirmed in New York
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax source remains a mystery
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax: How do you stop it?
10 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax as a biological weapon
09 Oct 01 | Health
Q&A: Anthrax infection
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