Experts baffled by 'unconnected' anthrax death

War on Terrorism: Bioterrorism
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The Independent US

The White House expressed fresh alarm about the bioterrorism threat in the United States as experts puzzled over the death yesterday of a 61-year-old New York woman from inhalation anthrax.

The woman, a Vietnamese immigrant identified as Kathy Nguyen, died in the early hours at the Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, three days after she checked herself in. She is the fourth person to die after being contaminated by the bacterium since the scare hit America almost one month ago.

Considerable anxiety is attached to the case because it did not seem to fit any earlier patterns. Until yesterday, all those exposed to anthrax seemed to work either for the government, for the postal service or for media organisations.

Ms Nguyen worked in a basement storeroom of the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. How she was exposed to anthrax, therefore, was far from clear.

"That's part of the mystery," said Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, who is advising President George Bush on the bioterrorist situation. "So all bets are off and we – the public health officials, the forensic group – have to do a real full court press on trying to track this down. This is critical." Seventeen people in America have been confirmed with different forms of anthrax.

In Washington, the President was due to meet a wide circle of aides to review the death of Ms Nguyen and its possible implications. Officials were fearful that it could mean that a much wider outbreak of anthrax could be in the offing and that efforts to contain it will become much more difficult. Some experts were speaking of "cross-contamination" whereby citizens might become exposed to anthrax from articles of mail that were not themselves laced with the bacterium but which may have come into contact with anthrax-filled items in sorting facilities.

"Our heart goes out to anybody who suffers in America," Mr Bush said after being told the news. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: "The President expresses his condolences and sympathy to the family of the woman who died as a result of inhalation anthrax. This is an event of concern and the President is discussing it with his team."

There was also concern about a New Jersey accountant. She was identified with skin anthrax on Monday and also does not have any direct link to the postal service. Glen Gilmore, Hamilton Township Mayor, revealed that the woman had received a lot of mail recently because she was planning her daughter's wedding. "The cross-contamination seems to be the most likely explanation," he said. "We are hoping there won't be any more. There are others who are being monitored and we are hoping for the best."

There were also anthrax alerts elsewhere in the world. A dozen South African cabinet ministers went to hospital for anthrax checks yesterday and President Thabo Mbeki's office in Cape Town was cordoned off after two suspicious parcels were opened there.

The consular section of the British embassy in Beijing was closed when a package containing white powder was found, an embassy spokesman said.

US officials, meanwhile, flatly denied a report in the Miami Herald newspaper that FBI agents had stopped six men travelling in two cars in an unidentified state over the weekend carrying photographs and information on a nuclear power plant in Florida and the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

In addition to the photographs, they had box-cutters and other "suspicious equipment", the paper said. A Justice Department spokesman said: "There's no credibility at all to that report."

The government imposed a 10-mile no-fly zone around every nuclear facility in America until 6 November. No reason was given for the order.