U.S. law enforcement officials continue to investigate an outbreak of anthrax exposure in Florida, one-day after a third person tested positive for the potentially deadly bacterium. The case is generating great unease and some mischief that is taxing the resources of local officials.
There are many questions, but few answers in the Florida anthrax case. Where did the anthrax bacterium come from, and how did it infect a newspaper office in Palm Beach County? Just how many people have been exposed, and, perhaps most worrisome of all, could other cases crop up in other parts of the state or the nation?
Health officials have attempted to reassure the public, saying the anthrax incident is being contained. All employees of the Boca Raton newspaper offices have been tested for anthrax and given antibiotics. Health officials continue to stress that anthrax is not contagious.
The FBI says it now considers the case a criminal matter. Federal authorities appear to have excluded the possibility of a random, natural occurrence of anthrax, although they add there is no evidence linking the case to the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Late Wednesday, health officials announced that a 35 year-old woman had tested positive for anthrax exposure - the third case in recent days. The first victim died last week, two-days after being diagnosed with the disease.
Meanwhile, local authorities are pleading for calm and restraint. Across the region, a rash of false cases of potential bio-terrorism have been reported.
In Fort Lauderdale, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne says the false alarms are creating havoc for law enforcement and emergency personnel. "We are overtaxed on a good day, " he said. "And these are not good days for us. So, we are asking people to think about what they are saying."
The Sheriff says any pranks designed to create panic and hysteria, such as suspicious letters sent through the mail, will not be tolerated - and those responsible will face penalties. "It disrupts our regular police and fire services," said Sheriff Jenne. "You are going to be prosecuted under the laws of the state of Florida, because, in my estimation, you are one of the people who is helping develop this psyche of terrorism in this country.
The anthrax concern extends beyond U.S. borders. The State Department has advised American embassies to stock up on antibiotics in the event of anthrax incidents affecting U.S. citizens in foreign lands.