Around the Globe, Suspicious Mail and Hoaxes Spread Anthrax Anxiety

Tuesday, October 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli newspaper workers find an envelope filled with white powder and a note reading, ``Regards from Afghanistan.'' In Canada, anthrax jitters empty buildings nationwide. In South Korea, postal workers handling international letters begin wearing gas masks and gloves.

No anthrax attacks have been confirmed outside the United States, but dozens of scares and multiple hoaxes have spread anthrax anxiety around the globe at the speed of mail.

Men in moon suits have been called into action on several continents, overdressed it turned out, for what have so far been false alarms.

Governments are taking the threats seriously, but face the contradictory task of trying to raise awareness without prompting a flood of calls from a panicked public.

In London Tuesday, 12 people were taken to the hospital as a precaution after a suspect package was delivered to the London Stock Exchange.

City police said none of the people showed any ill effects, and that the stock exchange had not been evacuated. They would not say whether the people taken to the hospital were being tested for exposure to anthrax.

Postal workers are on high alert. Airlines are checking luggage and handbags ever more closely. Health ministries are stocking up on antibiotics that effectively treat anthrax, a potentially lethal bacteria that sometimes infects livestock and can also be manufactured in the lab.

Italy's Health Ministry set up a hotline Monday, but appealed for people to use it responsibly after receiving 520 calls the first day, mostly from citizens afraid of anthrax or smallpox.

In Israel, a country that has endured scores of bombings in the past year, citizens have been conditioned to be on the lookout for potential threats. Police receive hundreds of calls each day from citizens who think they've seen a suspicious package.

On Tuesday, workers at Maariv newspapers opened an envelope with an unidentified white powder and the Hebrew-language note, ``Regards from Afghanistan.'' They suspected a prank and called several colleagues they thought might be behind it, but none took responsibility.

The workers then called police who told them to stay inside and close the windows. Hazardous materials workers rushed to the scene. Police ruled it a prank and said they may open a case against the Maariv worker allegedly responsible.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israelis were issued with gas masks and an antidote against nerve gas. Thirty-nine Iraqi missiles struck Israel but none carried chemical or biological weapons. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have gone to government centers to pick up gas masks once again.

In Canada, several buildings across the country were evacuated Monday, and parts of Parliament Hill in the capital Ottawa were closed off.

Health official Dr. Robert Cushman said there were two incidents on Parliament Hill, including one in which an office secretary developed a rash after opening mail. But tests turned up no traces of anthrax, he added.

The anthrax scare began in Florida on Oct. 4, when it was confirmed that a newspaper editor had contracted the inhaled form of the bacteria. He later died, the first such death in the United States since 1976.

Since then a female employee of the NBC network in New York was infected by a letter carrying the disease, and on Monday, an ABC News producer's infant son was diagnosed with anthrax. A letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle also tested positive for the bacteria.

Europe has seen a rash of suspected anthrax cases. But checks of suspicious mail in Britain, France, Sweden, and Yugoslavia all proved negative.

In Germany, the government said Tuesday that tests on a white powder found in the mailroom at German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's offices had found no trace of anthrax or any other dangerous substance.

In South Korea, postal workers are not only wearing protective gear, but are also checking incoming mail with metal detectors and X-ray machines, the Information and Communication Ministry said. The government has also allocated the equivalent of $53 million to fund an anti-bioterrorism task force.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization in Geneva warned against the overuse of antibiotics by people fearful of contracting anthrax, saying it could produce untreatable forms of the disease.

``If people are self-medicating, drug resistance - and not only for anthrax - could grow,'' said Iain Simpson, spokesman for the WHO's Communicable Diseases division.

Anyone who feels ill should go to a doctor and should not start taking drugs independently, Simpson stressed. Different antibiotics are needed for different strains of anthrax, he said.

In Australia, staff at the American Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne were isolated Tuesday and workers from other businesses evacuated after a suspicious package was delivered to the office.

Chamber general manager Robyn Larson said the envelope had a blank Christmas card with white powder inside. The receptionist who opened the mail got the powder on her hands, she said.

She was given a disinfectant shower and sent home in a cab, Larson said. The powder is being tested.

Prime Minister John Howard said there were 57 suspected anthrax cases recorded Monday across Australia, but all of them had been proven false.