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Mail gets new scrutiny because of anthrax scare

The authorities in several countries are investigating parcels suspected of containing anthrax Keystone Archive

The anthrax scare has shifted attention to mailrooms as investigators in many countries, including Switzerland, examine suspicious packages.

This content was published on October 16, 2001 - 07:54

In Switzerland, two people are undergoing tests for possible exposure to anthrax after they received packages containing an unidentified powder.

The first incident came to light on Monday after the Basel-based pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, revealed that one of its employees had undergone medical tests after receiving a letter with powder.

Novartis spokesman, Mark Hill, told swissinfo that the employee had alerted his superior about the letter on Sunday, in the wake of media reports about the anthrax scare in the US.

"One of our employees received a letter in the office last Tuesday," said Hill. "He opened the letter and a small amount of powder fell out. The letter didn't seem suspicious in any other way, and he threw it away."

Antibiotics

Hill added that the employee had been given antibiotics against anthrax as a precaution, pending laboratory tests. The results are expected by Friday.

The company is also running checks to see if other staff members had come into contact with the substance.

Hill said the letter in question was a "normal business-type of letter and the source of it was not in any way suspicious". He added that the company did not think there was any connection with the cases that have been reported in the US.

Police said on Monday that a woman living in Basel, whom they did not identify, had received a letter at home postmarked from Texas containing a suspicious powder and a pamphlet about the Holocaust.

Martin Guertler from Canton Basel's Department of Health said the matter was being taken very seriously, although he described the likelihood of genuine cases of anthrax occurring in Switzerland as "very small".

Precautionary measures

Guertler advised anyone else who might receive similar letters not to panic as anthrax could be successfully combated with antibiotics, although they should take precautionary measures.

"Don't open or shake the letter and wash your hands with soap and water immediately after touching the envelope," he says. "If you do open it and powder escapes, change your clothes, put them in an airtight container or plastic bag and take a shower."

Authorities said a telephone hot line was being flooded with calls from people worried about chemical or biological weapons - especially from those planning to visit the United States in the near future.

Hundreds tested

Hundreds of people have been tested across the US for anthrax in recent days, after people in three states were exposed to the bacteria.

Letters containing anthrax were sent to employees at the broadcaster NBC in New York, a supermarket tabloid newspaper company in Florida and a Microsoft office in the state of Nevada. The baby son of an ABC News producer was being treated after exposure to anthrax.

US officials said several other people had tested positive for exposure to anthrax after receiving contaminated letters, but only two people had actually contracted the disease, one of whom had died.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease which affects both wild and domestic animals. In humans, symptoms vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but usually occur within seven days. The disease is normally fatal unless treated quickly.

swissinfo

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