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New York Responds to Anthrax Threat

Over the weekend, New York City joined Boca Raton, Florida, and several other locations across the country in becoming a biochemical crime scene when officials announced that an NBC employee, Erin O'Connor, had contracted cutaneous anthrax after coming into contact with a contaminated letter.

Another NBC employee who had contact with the same contaminated letter has flu-like symptoms and lesions, though the results of her lab tests have not yet been returned. That employee is also being treated with antibiotics and, like O'Connor, is expected to recover. Also on Sunday, Mayor Giuliani revealed that a police officer and two of the lab technicians who had handled the NBC letter were found to have anthrax spores in their noses or on their skin.

The New York Times also received a suspicious letter, although tests have not turned up any evidence of anthrax. Those who have been exposed are being treated with prophylactic antibiotics--as are many unexposed employees of NBC and the New York Times--and are not believed to be in danger.

Dr. Neal L. Cohen is the commissioner of health for the City of New York and is heading up the medical end of the investigation in the city. He spoke with the Early Show about the city's efforts.

So far, about 600 employees of NBC and 25 employees of the New York Times have been tested for exposure to the disease. Only Erin O'Connor's tests have been confirmed positive. The second NBC employee will know her results later Monday. She is being treated with antibiotics, though, because she developed significant symptoms: swollen lymph nodes and lesions. In addition, many of the tested employees of NBC and the Times have elected to take antibiotics as a preventive measure. This might not be necessary but seems to have a calming effect.

There is a concern that people will begin to stockpile antibiotics, and the supply will be threatened.

Cohen and his staff have been on alert since September 11, looking out for the strange cases and significant symptoms that would indicate a bioterrorist attack. As part of a plan for medical surveillance, the Department of Health sent out letters to tens of thousands of city doctors encouraging them to be on the lookout for signs of trouble but at the same time asking for their help in avoiding an antibiotic shortage.

The city's Department of Health has also been urging preventive measures, telling businesses to be cautious in the handling of suspicious mail.

It will fall to the FBI to trace the strain of the disease and determine its criminal source. But Cohen is skeptical about direct ties to al Qaeda and September 11. His spokesperson says given what we know this is not an efficient way of harming a lot of people, nor is it very effective in doing a great deal of harm to just a few.

(This is especially true of cutaneous anthrax, which is effectively treated with antibiotics and is not as deadly as inhaled anthrx.)

The last case of anthrax in New York City was, according to Cohen's spokesperson, more than 50 years ago.

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