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Facts and Fiction About Anthrax

Eye on America brings you hard facts about the terror threat from anthrax. For instance, the Bayer Company said today it is stepping up production of Cipro, the antibiotic that may treat anthrax. Many people are clamoring for prescriptions. Is this a good idea?

Medical correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin has this and other anthrax information.

These microscopic bacteria are looming large in the minds and imaginations of Americans these days, but fear of anthrax is causing an epidemic of misinformation.

"People are terrified," says New York pediatrician Dr. Laura Popper. "They feel out of control and they want something to help protect them."

For doctors like Laura Popper that means the phones are ringing off the hook.

People are demanding Cipro, an antibiotic known to fight the deadly bacteria, but she's saying no.

"To me, it would be the equivalent of saying, 'We have a danger--let's give everybody a gun,'" says Popper.

Stockpiling antibiotics won't help. Doctors say the drugs are only effective if used immediately after exposure. Misusing them could weaken their effectiveness.

Other people are turning to gas masks for protection, but infectious disease experts say when it comes to anthrax gas masks are a waste of money.

"Gas masks are absolutely not helpful unless you have it on 24 hours a day 7 days a week because you have to have it on when an event occurs," says Keith Holterman of George Washington University.

Another myth about anthrax is that large numbers of people out on the streets are at risk. But in reality terrorists would need huge quantities of it infect a population and spreading it outside would be highly ineffective.

"If it's sent out as a cloud, which is the way people imagine it mostly, it is going to go nowhere. It's not going to be inhaled. It's going to be wasted and may even be destroyed," says Stephen Morse of the Columbia University School of Public Health.

That means hysteria over spreading the bacteria with crop-dusting planes is unfounded, and attacks on small, enclosed areas are a more realistic threat.

"Anywhere there would be a high volume of people in a very small location--a movie theater or something--would be a prime area where we would have a serious concern," says Holterman.

And there are serious concerns--especially with flu season approaching--because there is no way of differentiating the early signs of anthrax and the early signs and symptoms of the flu, which Holterman says makes it especially deadly.

Still doctors say, the best preparedness is knowledge, not fear.

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