It began in early October, with strange tales of a rare and deadly disease at the Florida offices of the most popular supermarket tabloid group. A month later, anthrax is embedded in the national psyche, another symbol of helplessness in the face of terrorism.
In bald statistical terms, the human impact has been small. Since Bob Stevens, a British-born picture editor for American Media Inc, died on 5 October, the disease has killed only three others. Two were Washington DC postmen who handled an impregnated letter sent to the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle; the other was a New York hospital worker. Fourteen more people have been infected with either the form of anthrax that affects the skin or is inhaled but all are expected to make a full recovery.
With no new case reported since 31 October, when Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old Brooklyn hospital worker, died, the authorities are hoping the worst is over. Yesterday a post office in New Jersey, through which several suspect letters passed, reopened. But even if the immediate crisis is receding, the cost will be hugein both financial and psychological terms.
Five weeks after the first death, and despite a huge investigation, the FBI is no wiser as to where the deadly spores came from, who mailed them and whether the incidents are linked to the 11 September attacks. But be it bin Laden supporters, a foreign state or homegrown extremists, whoever was responsible knew just how to secure maximum impact for minimum outlay. If you want to frighten America, someone observed, frighten the media. The unknown assailants did that, attacking a handful of newspaper and network TV offices in New York, as well as Capitol Hill. The result was pandemonium, magnified by the very openness of the US.
For the mail service, the cost of the disruption, lost business and installing new safety equipment has prompted the Postmaster General, John Potter, to ask Congress for $5bn (£3.4bn) of emergency aid.
Meanwhile, the mystery remains. The FBI believes Mrs Nguyen did not catch anthrax from cross-contaminated mail. But if not, where did it come from? For now anthrax has disappeared, but no one knows for how long.Reuse content