Suspicious Letters Cause Anthrax Scares Worldwide

A travel letter mailed from Florida to Argentina tested positive for anthrax, Argentina's health minister said Friday, in what appeared to be the second confirmed case of anthrax-tainted mail outside the United States.

Health Minister Hector Lombardo told a news conference that anthrax spores were found pressed into the paper in a travel brochure. The envelope that contained the brochure did not contain any powder, and no one has tested positive for exposure, he said.

Earlier this week, a letter sent from Atlanta to a doctor in Kenya tested positive for anthrax. The doctor and his family were in good health but were being treated with antibiotics.

Lombardo said authorities began testing mail after receiving calls from Argentines worried about mail sent from the United States. He did not say when the brochure was mailed or received. The tests were conducted Thursday and Friday.

Elsewhere, anthrax scares multiplied worldwide. The British House of Commons opened late Friday, an Australian lawmaker's office was sealed off amid confusion over ashes from a Hindu temple, and American Express apologized for sending plastic snowflakes to Swedish customers.

From Beijing to the Greek island of Corfu, most scares were quickly ruled false alarms. But they have become so common that researchers in one medical journal even came up with a psychological diagnosis for some cases: "mass sociogenic illness."

Germany alone has reported more than 100 scares; and on Friday, a second letter containing unidentified powder was found in the offices of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It tested negative for anthrax.

In London, the opening of the House of Commons was delayed an hour after officials discovered a suspicious package. Speaker Michael Martin said the members' lobby, a large foyer where lawmakers traditionally meet voters, would remain closed temporarily.

Croatia's parliament members were also evacuated for an hour Friday after one of them opened a letter with a white powder that later tested negative for anthrax.

Parliament security officers in Australia's New South Wales state sealed off the office of a lawmaker after a worker found a package full of ashes postmarked from the "Wandering Swamy of Arunchala Hills."

The package, the lawmaker later explained, was holy ash from a swami he met during a recent trip to India.

American Express Co. said Friday it will send letters of apology to some 40,000 Swedish card holders who received a promotional Christmas mailing containing an envelope with plastic snowflakes marked "spread these out." The mailing prompted angry phone calls.

"We understand that people are upset," said spokeswoman Gunnel Engberg. "They complained that the timing was inadequate, not that it was dangerous in any way."

Spanish authorities, meanwhile, said they had arrested a 22-year-old chemistry student on charges of sending flour through the mail as a birthday prank. He was the second Spaniard in a week to be arrested on hoax charges.

"There are some cynical people out there," Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy said, warning that pranksters would be prosecuted.

South African Airways grounded one plane after a latex glove covered with powder was found on a seat, and a second plane after a passenger reported powder on his luggage.

In an editorial published Friday in the British Medical Journal, three medical specialists said the anthrax threat had produced cases of "mass sociogenic illness" -- illness rooted in social factors rather than a medical cause -- with hundreds of people around the world complaining of the flu-like symptoms associated with anthrax infection.

In one case on Oct. 3, more than a thousand students in the Philippines flooded hospitals complaining of cough and fever after rumors spread about bio-terrorism, the authors said.

In other developments outside the United States:

Brazilian health authorities were testing a suspicious letter that arrived at the Rio de Janeiro office of The New York Times with spores resembling anthrax. Three staff workers began precautionary treatment.

The Pakistani government said it was testing a "suspicious letter" containing a powdery substance that was received by the British Embassy in Islamabad.

Chief epidemiologist Mate Ljubicic of Croatia's health service reported more than 100 hoaxes and called them the work of "deranged individuals who want to spread panic."

Other letters prompted officials to seal off part of the Australian embassy in Sri Lanka and a post office in Corfu, Greece.

"I would like to say that these pranks are very negative, and those who play with this do great harm. First of all, it's not only the panic which is created, but there's also an economic cost for these tests to be done," Greek government spokesman Tilemahos Hitiris said.

In China, the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect said it suspected China was using fears of anthrax to further a smear campaign against it.

China's Foreign Ministry said a letter containing "suspicious substances" and publicity materials about Falun Gong was received Tuesday by an employee of a U.S. firm in China. Health workers disinfected people who came into contact with the letter.