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A First on American Soil: Bioterrorism - 2001-12-25

Bioterrorism suddenly appeared in the United States in 2001. Mail tainted with powdered anthrax killed five people, infected 17 more, and further frightened a nation reeling from the September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

A cattle disease that infects and kills so few people would hardly go noticed in normal times.

But authorities have long considered the anthrax bacterium a leading bioterrorist threat. Furthermore, letters tainted with it were mailed just one week after terrorists crashed hijacked civilian airliners into the World Trade Center towers and U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon.

The anthrax outbreak confounded experts' expectations that a bioterrorist attack would be launched in the air. Instead, a nation already in an uproar over its first mainland assault confronted a microscopic foe that contaminated postal sorting equipment and the mail that went through it.

The country's top law enforcement official, Attorney General John Ashcroft, offered citizens explicit instructions on dealing with a deadly toxin that could arrive at their door.

"If individuals receive mail of which they are suspicious, they should not open it, they should not shake it, they should leave the area of the mail, call the local law enforcement authorities [and] public health authorities so that the mail can be appropriately dealt with," Mr. Ashcroft said.

The victims were not the prominent journalists and members of Congress to whom the letters were addressed. Instead, they were postal employees, staff members in Congress, assistants to television news anchors, and unsuspecting citizens.

The small number of cases showed anthrax not to be the weapon of mass destruction originally feared, but it was one of mass disruption. It caused Congress to close briefly, created widespread panic, and forced security measures in government and business costing billions of dollars. The U.S. Postal Service began sending all mail from certain east coast post offices away to be irradiated, delaying speedy delivery. Deputy postmaster John Nolan described an agency on full alert.

"What we're doing is making sure that we're doing all the right things to make sure we can deliver mail safely. We are working very hard to ensure the safety of our employees and the American public, and yet keep mail moving, because mail is important to people," he said.

Amidst the anthrax scare, government officials grounded crop dusters temporarily to prevent terrorists from spraying biological or chemical agents over farms and cities. Armed guards were posted at many drinking reservoirs.

With no U.S. anthrax cases in 25 years, public health officials were suddenly faced with a threat for which they were poorly prepared. The government's Centers for Disease Control could cite only limited research from animal studies on how to treat the infection.

The head of the private advocacy group the American Public Health Association, Dr. Mohammad Akhter, complained that government was poorly organized to combat a mass health disaster.

"There is a lack of coordination at the local level, intelligence agencies doing their work, the public health community doing their work. There is not a single chain of command to decide which building to close, who needs to get what medication. Those things are not in place," Dr. Akhter said.

Thousands of Americans employed in anthrax contaminated offices began taking antibiotics as a precaution. Public health officials prepared for the possibility that terrorists might spread the eradicated smallpox virus and arranged for production of enough vaccine for most of the country.

As a result of the scare, Congress is considering measures that would give more then $3 billion for emergency and public health services to better counter a bioterrorist attack. Senator Edward Kennedy said part of the money would go toward building a reserve of vaccines, antibiotics and other medical supplies.

"We have a strategic petroleum reserve to safeguard our energy ends in times of crisis. We need a strategic pharmaceutical reserve as well to ensure that we have the medicines and the vaccines stockpiled to respond to bioterrorist attacks," he said.

While the measure proceeds through the legislature, law enforcement authorities are still searching for clues to whoever, domestic or foreign, sent the anthrax letters.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001