Bacteria exists in soil around United States

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Anthrax has taken three lives, infected at least 13 others and wreaked havoc on a country already fraught with worries over terrorism and a war.

But this isn't anthrax's debut performance. Before the events of Sept. 11, the bacteria existed naturally in the United States, mostly in the rural soils of Texas, Oklahoma and the Mississippi Valley. In fact, from 1944 to 1994, there were 242 cases of anthrax in this country.

But local health-care officials and biologists say the latest is a different kind of anthrax, one they are almost certain has been sent by outsiders looking to continue their wave of terror. They describe it as a specially treated "weaponized" anthrax.

County health director Charlotte Craig, who stresses she is not an anthrax expert, said she doesn't think anthrax was already in the buildings where it has been discovered.

"Anthrax is around," she said. "It's a spore like tetanus is a spore. The deal is that its most common host is warm-blooded animals like cows, or it's in the soil. So are you going to find it in buildings? No. It's not the kind of thing that would be hiding in buildings."

Craig said Cape Girardeau has not had an anthrax case reported in the 27 years she has been here.

Anthrax creates flu-like conditions and many people die of influenza each year, so Craig acknowledged the possibility that anthrax has been misdiagnosed over the years. But she considers the possibility remote.

"While we have not been looking for anthrax, we do have excellent medical care in the United States," Craig said. "We haven't had polio in years either, but our physicians would know it if they saw it."

Craig said she doesn't think anthrax cases in the past have been overlooked.

"That's because I'm familiar and confident in the system we have," she said. "My feeling is that what we're seeing is a direct result of someone trying to hurt us."

Bacteria forms spores

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Unlike many bacteria, it can form spores, inactive forms that can survive in the environment for prolonged periods. It takes almost 10,000 spores to overwhelm the immune system and cause the disease.

Dr. Chris Frazier, a biology professor at Southeast Missouri State University, said anthrax enters the soil from animals that have died from anthrax, but spores can stay in the soil a long time.

Frazier said the spores, in order to cause inhalation anthrax, have to be specially treated to remain airborne. That requires drying the materials down to a fine powder so they will stay in the air longer.

"My best guess, and I think it's everybody's best guess, is that this is being introduced from the outside by someone trying to introduce it from the outside," Frazier said.

Not from the soil

Frazier said weaponized anthrax doesn't come from the soil.

"The stuff in the buildings most likely came in that treated, powdered form," Frazier said. "Hypothetically, could someone track an anthrax spore in those buildings?" Yes, but it's hardly likely, Frazier said.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman, Bernadette Burden, said officials don't assume all anthrax being discovered is weaponized.

"We don't speculate until we investigate," she said. "But rest assured that we are vigorously investigating the origin of the exposures."

It is known that biological weapons programs exist or have existed in 17 countries, although how many have anthrax isn't know, she said.

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