How Much of a Threat Does Anthrax Pose?

This is a partial transcript from The Big Story With John Gibson, October 12, 2001.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Joining us now to talk about the anthrax cases and whether there is cause for concern, Dr. Stephen Morse, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University.

Dr. Morse, first of all, I think we all want to know — and maybe you know it, maybe you don't. Can somebody put anthrax spores in an envelope and send it through the mail? Does that sound even plausible?

DR. STEPHEN MORSE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: It's possible to do it, but in fact, it's not generally a very effective way to give anybody anthrax. On the whole, people are pretty resistant to anthrax, and it's not easy to catch anthrax, and it's very hard to make anthrax in a form that when you put it in an envelope, it could be inhaled and infect someone. However, you can put anthrax spores in an envelope and someone might touch it and get the cutaneous form.

We've seen many hoaxes in the past, and I'm sure we'll see many more hoaxes now, unfortunately, where people put white powder in an envelope and claim it's anthrax. And these invariably have been hoaxes.

Certainly, if you have some anthrax, you could put it in an envelope, but it's not likely to do very much. The cutaneous anthrax case we've just seen is probably about the limit of what you'd normally expect.

GIBSON: Well, now, the letter that arrived to the New York Times today — and there was a white, powdery substance in it and it was tested, turned out to be talcum powder. It's a hoax. And we have this odd thing that is hard to explain. The powder tested at NBC came back as negative as anthrax, but the woman got anthrax. Does this make any sense to you?

MORSE: I'm not sure exactly what tests were done on the sample, and it's possible that — you know, I don't know if that was the only — how they identified that particular package as the suspicious one. But it also does take a pretty fair amount of anthrax even to cause cutaneous anthrax. And you have to remember this is a disease that you can recognize as very characteristic appearance on the skin. When you recognize it and diagnose it, it can be treated. And if it's treated, it is very easily treated. People will be cured.

GIBSON: Cutaneous?

MORSE: Cutaneous anthrax.

GIBSON: Not pulmonary?

MORSE: Unlike the pulmonary form. And the pulmonary, if you catch it early enough, you can save many people who have it — you can — the people in Florida who were exposed, they may have had some in their nose. It's not clear whether they actually had gotten any in their lungs. But if you give them antibiotics, as you can see they're not coming down with disease and they — I think that they will not come down with disease.

GIBSON: Does this sound like what you're seeing now, couple of cases in Florida, some anthrax spores being discovered in a building in Florida, a case in New York City, what may turn out to be some spores found in a building. Is this a public health concern?

MORSE: In the sense that obviously public health will be important in responding to it. You know, public health is where a lot of the knowledge is. It's obviously where the system that's going to pick up these cases exists, identifying possible cases early. But in reality, we're talking about a very small number of cases. These are very rare events. And I think they will very likely continue to be rare events. The many hoaxes will, of course, be quite numerous.

GIBSON: Are you frightened?

MORSE: Personally?


MORSE: Well, I've worked with a number of these organisms, you know, so in some sense, they're familiar. I think that a lot of common sense is really, you know, the most important thing here.

GIBSON: Well, people are going out and buying antibiotics and that sort of thing. Should they be or should they be frightened of this because there's a case in New York City and three of them in Florida?

MORSE: I think we should not be frightened. I think we should put it in perspective. These are outbreaks of infectious disease. They're very unfortunate, but they can be handled effectively and are being handled effectively by the public health and medical system. I think if there are suspicious packages, people should use common sense about that. If you think that there's some odd package that might have a white powder or you see a white powder, you know, don't breathe it in, don't put it too close to your nose. Wash your hands and have it checked.

GIBSON: Stephen Morse from the Columbia University School of Public Health. Dr. Morse, thanks very much.

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