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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

CDC Confirms Inhalation Anthrax Case

Terrorism Not Suspected; Patient Had Handled Animal Hides
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 22, 2006 -- Federal health officials have confirmed that anthrax bacteria caused the respiratory illness of a 44-year-old New York man.

CDC scientists said bacteria isolated from the man, who is listed in fair condition in a Pennsylvania hospital, is Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax.

"We did confirm the results from the laboratories in Pennsylvania," Lisa Rotz, MD, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC, told reporters.

Anthrax Source

Investigators have not confirmed the source of the anthrax that infected the man. But officials in New York and at the CDC suspect animal hides that he reportedly transported to New York from the Ivory Coast.

Anthrax is usually seen in livestock such as cattle, goats, and sheep. It is common in many parts of Africa. Rotz said interviews with the man indicated that he handled and scraped the hides while preparing them for use in drum making.

The scraping "is a scenario that could aerosolize any spores on the hides," she said.

Investigators have not yet tested the hides and could not confirm on Wednesday that they were the source of the man's infection.

"That's a leading hypothesis at this time," she said. "We go into these investigations with an open mind."

Inhalation Anthrax

Inhalation anthrax is caused when a person inhales anthrax spores. The disease is sometimes fatal, but can be treated with antibiotics; it is not communicable from person to person. If it is confirmed that the man contracted anthrax from animal hides it would be the first known case of naturally occurring inhalation anthrax in the U.S. since 1976.

Holtz said health officials have no reason to suspect a man-made cause such as terrorism for the disease.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference Wednesday afternoon that city officials suspect the case is isolated and naturally occurring.

Five people died and several others were sickened in the fall of 2001 when anthrax spores were sent through the mail to several Capitol Hill offices and media outlets. That case has never been solved.

According to reports Wednesday, the man first entered the hospital about a week before Pennsylvania health officials and doctors suspected anthrax. Diagnosing the disease can be difficult because its symptoms, including lung inflammation and respiratory distress, mirror those of several more common diseases.

Still, such a weeklong lag time to diagnose anthrax could be problematic if the disease is again used as a weapon.

"We are definitely reviewing the sequence of events here to see if there's anything we can do to speed up the process," Rotz said.

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