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The United States has experienced a rash of anthrax letter which has raised public concern about the risks posed by these threats. The good news is that in the Kansas City area all of these incidents have been explained or determined to be a hoax. The bad news is that we will likely continue to have more of these incidents. The public safety agencies in the greater Kansas City area have plans to deal with these threats quickly and efficiently. The following guidelines are offered to you in the event that you receive an anthrax threat letter.
What is anthrax?
Anthrax is a bacterium which naturally occurs in cattle, sheep, and other hoofed animals. Approximately 15 to 20 cases of anthrax naturally occur each year in the United States, usually among workers associated with hoofed animals.
Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal. Anthrax spores are extremely stable and may remain viable in soil and water for many years. Humans can become infected by handling animal products (hides) from infected animals, by inhaling the spores from contaminated animal products or by eating undercooked meat of infected animals. Additionally, anthrax can form spores, which may be transmitted through inhalation. Absorption through the skin does not occur unless there is a scratch or abrasion at the point of contact.
If infected by anthrax, an incubation period of one to seven days may pass prior to the development of any symptoms. With inhalation infections onset of symptoms is gradual and non-specific; however, some of the following symptoms may occur: mild fever, malaise, chills, nausea, swelling of the lymph nodes, and mild chest discomfort. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing problems and shock. Cutaneous infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin.
The skin infection begins as raised itchy bump that develops into a painless ulcer within 1 to 2 days. The intestinal disease is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract causing nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever.
Anthrax is not contagious and can be treated with antibiotics. With treatment following an exposure, infections are nearly 100 percent curable; however, without appropriate antibiotic treatment the infection will,most probably be fatal regardless of treatment.
Although anthrax is considered a potential military biological weapon, there have been no confirmed uses of anthrax as a weapon by any nation or by any terrorist organization or individual. It requires considerable skill, resources and technology to collect, culture, weaponize and disperse anthrax bacterium on a large scale and therefore highly unlikely. However, the ability to release small amounts in a localized area (building, room, etc.) requires less skill and technology.
The fact that the Anthrax Spores are extremely stable and can remain viable in the soil and environment for an extended period of time is why the Fire Department may carry out a meticulous decontamination procedure (thorough washing of hands followed by blowing the nose and a final thorough hand washing) for any credible threat.
Staff responsible for incoming mail should maintain an awareness of the possibility of anthrax threat letters. The following bullets outline common features of anthrax threat letters.
If a letter exhibits any of these warning clues, please follow these procedures:
Letter not opened
Opened letter, no visible indications
If you open a letter that claims to have contaminated you with anthrax, but there is no substance seen or felt in the envelope or on the letter, the chances that you have in fact been contaminated are extremely small.
Opened letter with visible indications
Never open a suspected letter.
These instructions have been provided to you by the Heart of American Metro Fire Chiefs Council and are intended to serve only as a guideline for your use in dealing with matters that involve terrorist actions. It is our organization's hope that, together, we can properly respond to these types of incidents and minimize the panic and fear that these criminal acts are designed to create.
Floyd Peoples, Chief Fire Marshal, Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department, 816-784-9100
Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council, 9550 W. 95th St., Overland Park, Kan. 66212