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11 Rushed to Hospital after Anthrax Scare
July 07, 2007 Edition 1
Michael Schmidt and Sapa

Eleven people were rushed to hospital yesterday after coming into contact with a package filled with a white powder, which was suspected of being anthrax.

If not treated, exposure to anthrax can be fatal - as happened in the United States in 2001 when five people died and 17 others were infected when they came into contact with powder anthrax posted in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

Inspector Juanita Kilian said police had received a complaint from the post office at Jacqueline Mall in Randhart concerning a "suspicious" parcel.

Police immediately evacuated and cordoned off the area around the post office, he said.

"They opened the envelope and saw white powder.

"At this stage we cannot confirm that the contents were anthrax," said Kilian.

Eleven post office staff, police and members of the public were decontaminated at the scene and taken to hospital.

Last night, Kilian said all of those hospitalised had been medicated and held briefly for observation before being discharged.

The parcel was sealed by the Bomb Disposal Unit and taken to the State veterinary laboratory at Onderstepoort, north of Pretoria, for forensic testing.

Kilian said it would take about seven days to determine if the substance was anthrax.

"We do not know where the parcel came from," said Kilian.

Professor Barry Schoub of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases east of Johannesburg - which keeps cultures of the world's deadliest viruses, including Ebola, Marburg and anthrax in its high-security laboratories - said there was no need to panic.

He said although there was no specific vaccine for anthrax, those who had been hospitalised should not have any fears as "anthrax is easily treated with a variety of antibiotics".

In 2001, a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, seven anthrax-contaminated letters were sent to five media outlets in New York City - ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the New York Post, the National Inquirer - and two Democratic Party senators in Washington DC, Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.

Only four actual letters were found: the existence of the others was inferred from the pattern of infection that left five people dead - a journalist, two mail workers and two women whose connection to the presumed letters was not established - and 17 others infected.

The letters to the senators contained sheets of paper on which was written the slogan "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."

The terror campaign provoked a nationwide scare, but although authorities offered rewards of $2.5 million for information leading to the arrest of suspects, and also interviewed more than 9 100 people on six continents, the case remains unsolved.