21, No. 10, Nov. 15, 2001
Anthrax forums educate,
By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; email@example.com
UI experts on anthrax
and microbiology joined representatives from McKinley Health Center,
the UI police department and UI administration in educating the campus
community about anthrax at a series of public forums Nov. 6 and 8. The
panel sought to allay peoples concerns and dispel myths by disseminating
information about the disease.
Abigail Salyers and Brenda Wilson, professors of microbiology; Robert
Palinkas, director of McKinley Health Center; Van Anderson, associate
vice chancellor for administration and human resources; and Capt. Krystal
Fitzpatrick of the UI Police Department, began a series of informational
forums Nov. 6 at Smith Music Hall.
The forums came about at the urging of undergraduate students in the
microbiology club, who voiced support for Wilsons suggestion that
they do something to educate community members about the disease, Salyers
said. The members of the panel then approached UI administration about
hosting the presentations.
An initial panel presentation had been held Oct. 24 at the Lincoln Hall
theater and about 75 or 100 people. However, the panel members decided
more presentations were needed to address growing public concern about
"People are very curious about anthrax," Palinkas said in
a phone interview. "It hasnt been on their radar screens
until recently, and they want to know what it is."
Anthrax is actually two diseases, Wilson told the audience a
bacterial disease that becomes a toxin disease if left untreated. Antibiotics
can effectively treat the disease unless it progresses to the toxin-producing
stage in the body, Wilson said.
Salyers set the tone for the forum by emphasizing that the best defense
against anthrax is obtaining accurate information and learning safety
guidelines so one can respond logically and calmly in emergent situations.
Salyers also advised audience members to be judicious about the sources
from which they glean information because much misinformation is being
propagated, particularly on the Internet.
The need for Salyers caveat became evident later in the program
when an audience member, referring to advice given in a television report,
asked if steam-ironing letters would kill anthrax spores and prevent
infection. Wilson responded that ironing ones mail would not be
very effective because the anthrax spores are very resilient and easily
withstand heat and cold.
Salyers also cautioned against becoming unduly alarmed by urban myths,
referring to a rumor that suicide terrorists plan to infect themselves
with anthrax and instigate epidemics by attending U.S. rock concerts.
Palinkas presented information about the incubation period for the disease,
preventive medication and decontamination guidelines if one suspects
he or she has been exposed to substances containing anthrax. For mail-handlers
and others in danger of potential exposure, Anderson provided guidelines
for the safe use and disposal of gloves.
Palinkas told the audience that widespread use of anti-anthrax medications
is "very much discouraged" by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention because the medicines are costly, may have harmful side
effects and because supplies are limited. Only those who have documented
exposure or who have highly suspicious clinical symptoms need the medicines,
Palinkas said. Anthrax testing is not recommended either unless the
person is believed to have been exposed to the disease, Palinkas said.
Existing security protocols have been heightened in recent weeks in
response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Fitzpatrick told the audience.
Members of UI law enforcement meet weekly with representatives from
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the public health department and
the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency. In addition, UI police have
prepared for potential terrorist activity by engaging in hazardous response
training drills the past two years, both of which involved weapons of
mass destruction, Fitzpatrick told the audience.
During the past few weeks, UI police and the Division of Environmental
Health and Safety have investigated several reports from faculty and
staff members who found unidentified powdery substances or who received
letters or packages that aroused suspicion. All but one of the suspicious
substances were subsequently identified and found to be benign, Fitzpatrick
said. One substance was sent to the FBI, but the agency has not been
able to identify it, Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick urged audience members to be alert to suspicious activity
and to not hesitate to call the police or the fire department if necessary.
A police supervisor screens calls about suspicious susbstances and packages
and determines the level of response needed by evaluating details obtained
from the caller against criteria established by the police department.
Even if the police supervisor determines that the incident does not
meet the departments criteria for mobilizing a hazardous response,
an officer will respond and meet with the caller to examine the suspect
materials and remove them for disposal if desired.
In the question-and-answer session following the presentations, audience
members posed questions about potential contamination of the food supply,
the likelihood of infection from handling mail contaminated by other
letters and the efficacy of particle masks, respirators and antibacterial
The Division of Environmental Health and Safety is available to assess
workplaces around campus and provide recommendations about safety measures
and environmental hazards, Anderson said.
Approximately 100 to 120 people attended each of the four presentations,
Palinkas estimated. Palinkas said the members of the panel received
largely positive feedback from people who had attended the sessions.
The members of the panel will evaluate the need for additional forums
on smallpox, a disease that is also causing widespread concern for its
potential as a biological weapon, Palinkas said.
During the same week, Salyers also gave several anthrax presentations
to postal employees at the request of the Champaign and Urbana postmasters.
"The main thing people wanted was explanations," Salyers said.
"I was really glad to do it. Its exploring something we dont
During the past 50 years, there have been 236 reported cases of anthrax
most cutaneous in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
Cause: A spore-forming bacterium.
The spores are the infective form. The spores are very resilient, resistant
to heat and cold and can last for years. Anthrax most commonly occurs
in hoofed mammals but also can infect humans if they handle or ingest
contaminated meat products, raw wool or animal hides. Direct person-to-person
spread is extremely unlikely.
Forms: (1) Cutaneous (skin) anthrax,
the most common form, can occur by handling contaminated meat or products
from infected animals and spores penetrating a wound on the skin; (2)
Intestinal (gut) anthrax, rare in humans, but can occur by ingesting
raw or undercooked contaminated meat; (3) Inhalation (lung) anthrax,
the most lethal form, is caused by inhaling spores dispersed in a fine
Symptoms: Vary according to the
form of infection, but usually occur within
seven days of exposure. Cutaneous anthrax begins as a raised bump resembling
a spider bite, which becomes red, swollen and ulcerated with a black
center. Initial anthrax symptoms resemble a cold. Watch for symptoms
such as a fever higher than 100 degrees; flu-like symptoms (cough, fatigue,
muscle aches) nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; or a sore, especially on
the face, arms or hands.
Treatment: Early treatment of all
forms is important for recovery. Antibiotics such as penicillin are
effective treatments for cutaneous and inhalation anthrax if they are
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site www.bt.cdc.gov.
For guidelines on anthrax and handling suspicious mail, visit the CDC
Web site or the McKinley Health Center site at http://www.mckinley.uiuc.edu/