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Third US Anthrax Case Not Linked To Terrorism - 2001-10-11

A third person in Boca Raton, Florida, has tested positive for exposure to anthrax, a potentially lethal bacterium that killed a newspaper worker last week. State and federal officials say they are now investigating a crime. There is no evidence the contamination is connected to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers say they are ready to provide funding to help states combat acts of bio-terrorism.

Ever since photo editor Robert Stevens died of anthrax poisoning, hundreds of anxious employees of American Media Incorporated which publishes supermarket tabloids, have lined up to be tested for exposure to the potentially-deadly bacterium. All have been vaccinated and given antibiotics to keep them from developing a lethal form of the disease.

As employee testing continued, a co-worker of Mister Stevens, Ernesto Blanco, was found to have the spores in his nasal passages.

Wednesday night, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District Guy Lewis held an impromptu news conference. "There is another individual who has now tested positively for the presence of the virus," he said.

The 35-year old woman, also a co-worker of the former Mr. Stevens, is being treated at a hospital.

Health officials stress anthrax is not contagious. Because you cannot catch the illness like a cold, they say the public should not worry.

However, anthrax is not endemic to the United States. So, although it is possible, although extremely unlikely, someone might become infected with anthrax in this country, the fact that there are three cases of exposure in the same location is now being investigated as a crime.

But U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Hector Pesquera says people should not leap to any conclusions. "Based on the preliminary testing by the CDC, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there is no indication at this time that this action or that this strain of anthrax was produced or caused by a terrorist group or individuals related to the incidents of September 11, 2001." he said.

Officials at the CDC have been working with the FBI to identify the origin of the anthrax spores.

Mr. Pesquera says investigators believe the anthrax contamination was limited to the American Media building.

On Capitol Hill, concern over bio-terrorism has been mounting steadily since the September 11 attacks. During a congressional hearing on the inadequate supply of anthrax vaccine to protect the American public, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone echoed what many lawmakers are no doubt thinking. "Really, in a lot of ways, I am having to pinch myself to realize that we're having this hearing," he said.

Legislation, spearheaded by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh would provide all 50 states with grants to establish plans to fight bio-terrorism. "I think it's important to emphasize that this possibility is what we emphasize in the intelligence area as 'low risk,' meaning it is unlikely to happen, but high threat, meaning if it does, the consequences could be catastrophic," he said.

Senator Bayh introduced the bill as part of a new homeland defense effort in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks.