Health officials preparing for anthrax threats

Local health officials are ready to address any incident of bioterrorism, while at the same time hoping such action does not become necessary.

"Thus far there have been no threats in Mohave County proven to be of a bioterrorist nature," said Jennifer McNally, assistant director of the Mohave County Department of Health and Social Services.

"We are getting phone calls from individuals about suspicious letters or packages and those are being handled by local law enforcement personnel or the FBI."

McNally said her department must report any call about a suspicious substance to the state Department of Health in Phoenix.

In turn, the state would contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if a case of anthrax, the most common bioterrorist agent now in use, is verified.

Antibiotics would come through the same chain of bureaucracy, she said.

Anthrax is an infectious disease that normally occurs seven days following exposure to its spores.

It may take any of three forms.

Cutaneous anthrax infections result from bacteria entering a cut or abrasion on the skin.

An itchy bump resembling an insect bite is raised after 1-2 days and it becomes a painful ulcer 1-3 centimeters wide with a black area in its center.

Consuming contaminated meat leads to intestinal anthrax.

Initial symptoms include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea.

Inhalation anthrax comes from breathing in the spores and someone who does may initially show symptoms of a cold.

But severe breathing problems and shock may set in after several days.

An anthrax nasal swab preliminary test will determine if someone has the spores in their nose," McNally said.

"That will tell us if the individual has been exposed to anthrax rather than if they are carrying the disease."

Blood tests are needed to confirm infection by all three types of anthrax.

A chest X-ray also may be done to verify infection in the case of inhalation anthrax, she said.

"For inhalation it's more difficult to produce spores small enough to become airborne," McNally said.

"You must have specific equipment and abilities to do it.

"The threat from that is less than from spores inside letters and packages."

Carleen Shelton, infection control practitioner at Kingman Regional Medical Center, said the hospital has had a bioterrorism plan in place for five years.

The hospital's contact is the head of poison control in Phoenix.

That individual would advise KRMC if anything of a bioterrorist nature happened in Phoenix or Las Vegas and what to watch for here, Shelton said.

If something happened in Kingman, KRMC officials would contact poison control and work with the county and state health departments.

The most common antibiotic in use for treating anthrax is Cipro.

Shelton said the hospital has a good supply of it on hand and more could be quickly obtained if needed.

In addition, KRMC has a communications plan in effect with the Kingman Police Department and Kingman Fire Department should decontamination of an office or building be necessary, she said.

Smallpox is another disease that might become a weapon for bioterrorists and is caused by the variola virus, McNally said.

The incubation period for smallpox is 12 days after exposure.

Symptoms include high fever, fatigue, headaches and backaches at the outset, followed 2-3 days later by a rash on the face, arms or legs.

Smallpox is spread from person to person through contact with infected saliva droplets.

Vaccinations against smallpox ended in 1977 when the disease was determined to be eradicated by the CDC.

The federal government maintains an emergency supply of smallpox vaccine and more could be produced if needed.

McNally cautioned people against taking Cipro as a means of warding off possible infection by anthrax.

"People seem to believe you can take Cipro and not get anthrax," she said.

"But by taking it you start building up antibiotic resistance.

"If something should happen down the road and you really need the antibiotic, it won't work."