Florida man infected with Anthrax in critical condition

By Amanda Riddle, Associated Press Writer
Friday October 05, 2001

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A 63-year-old Florida man lay near death Thursday with an extremely rare and lethal form of anthrax that could be a weapon in the hands of terrorists. U.S. health officials said there was no evidence of terrorism, but the FBI and CDC were called in to investigate. 

“There’s no need for people to fear they are at risk,” said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He and others emphasized that the disease is not contagious and there is no evidence yet of other people infected. 

But he said a deliberate release of the germ by terrorists is one of several possibilities under investigation. “We have that on the list,” he said. 

The man, Bob Stevens, photo editor of the supermarket tabloid The Sun, was hospitalized Tuesday with what was diagnosed as inhalation anthrax and was reported to be gravely ill. The Lantana, Fla., man’s identity was released by the tabloid’s publishing company. 

“We’re praying that he pulls through,” said Rita Stevens, a daughter-in-law who lives in Tallahassee. She said the family did not know how he contracted the disease. “We’re devastated.” 

Anthrax has been developed by some countries as a possible biological weapon. But the disease can be contracted naturally, often from livestock or soil. Officials said the Florida man is an avid outdoorsman. 

The most recent previous U.S. case of anthrax was earlier this year in Texas. But that was the more common skin form, not inhalation anthrax, an especially lethal form in which the disease settles in the lungs. 

“We will develop a very intense investigation of this case,” Koplan said. “We are in a period of heightened risk and concern in this country. It’s our responsibility to make sure people know what is going on and we control it as quickly as possible.” 

CDC investigators were dispatched to both Florida and North Carolina, since Stevens was said to have visited Duke University in Durham, N.C., about a week ago. The FBI is also investigating. 

“We will be checking on a day-by-day basis where he was, what he did, where he stayed, and looking for risks,” Koplan said. 

But the CDC already has canvassed hospitals and health departments in those states and found no one else with similar symptoms, the CDC chief said. 

“There’s no person-to-person spread of this disease. Individuals in contact with this sick person wouldn’t have caught it from him,” Koplan said. “There is no evidence of other cases within the communities this gentleman has been in.” 

Symptoms of inhalation anthrax typically start within seven days of breathing in the bacterial spores. Dr. Steve Wiersma, a Florida Health Department epidemiologist, said authorities are certain the man contracted the disease in Florida. 

Koplan said the patient has no digestive ills that would indicate the anthrax came from drinking contaminated water, and no skin symptoms from direct contact with the germ. But as for the possibility that he got anthrax from deliberately contaminated air, Koplan said: “We are aggressively investigating this case.” 

At a news conference at the White House, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson declared: “This is an isolated case and it’s not contagious.” He, too, said there was no evidence the case resulted from bioterrorism. 

Fears that terrorists may have been planning an airborne chemical or biological attack were raised last month when it was learned that a group of Middle Eastern men — including one of the hijackers in the attack on the World Trade Center — had been asking a lot of questions about a crop-duster at an airfield in Belle Glade, about 40 miles inland from Lantana. 

Because of those fears, the government grounded all crop-dusters across the country for a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

The men who visited the airfield had asked employees of a fertilizer company about the range of the airplane, how much it could haul in chemicals, how difficult it was to fly and how much fuel it could carry. 

During the 20th century, only 18 cases of inhaled anthrax were reported in the United States, the most recent in 1976. 

In North Carolina, Debbie Crane, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Service, said: “Anthrax occurred before Sept. 11. And it will occur in the future. The presence of a case of anthrax does not necessarily mean that some evildoer has done something horrible.” 

Koplan said the disease may actually be more common but goes undetected. The latest case may have come to health officials’ attention only because of heightened concern about its use as a possible weapon of mass destruction, he said. 

“What might have been tossed off as an undetermined bacterium was sent on to a state lab, where people recently received training in detecting anthrax,” he said. “It is a possible answer, which is an improved detection system.” 

Anthrax causes pneumonia, and patients are treated with antibiotics. There is also a vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease, but it is available only to the military now. 

Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious-disease specialist at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, said the patient there was on a ventilator. “He’s critically ill. Hopefully he’ll respond to treatment,” Bush said. 

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush had been notified of the anthrax case by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. He said HHS has been working on plans for years in case of an outbreak, and “a series of protections have been put into place.”