Anthrax letter sent to Senator

WASHINGTON — A letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tested positive for anthrax on Monday as the bioterrorism scare rattling the nation reached the halls of Congress, and two additional cases of anthrax were reported.

The discovery of anthrax in Washington followed earlier instances in Florida, New York and Nevada in which at least 13 people were exposed to spores of the potentially deadly bacteria. One Florida man has died from inhaling anthrax spores.

Monday night, another case of the disease was announced in New York. The 7-month-old child of an ABC News employee has tested positive for the skin form of anthrax, ABC News President David Westin said. The child, who recently spent time in the newsroom, is expected to recover.

Earlier Monday, Florida officials announced that Ernesto Blanco, 73 — an American Media mailroom employee in Boca Raton, Fla., who had previously tested positive for exposure — has become ill with the disease.

The piece of mail in Daschle’s office, which contained a powdery substance, was dispatched to an Army medical research facility at Fort Detrick, Md., for further examination, said Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.

The Fort Detrick findings could be available as early as today, officials said. Nichols and others warned that the initial tests were not necessarily accurate.

Bush told reporters "there may be some possible link" between the spate of anthrax incidents across the country and Osama bin Laden, who administration officials say was behind the Sept. 11 airline hijack attacks.

"I wouldn’t put it past him, but we don’t have any hard evidence," Bush said.

Daschle was in the Capitol and was not exposed to the letter, which was opened in his other office a block away in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Officials would not identify the person who opened the letter, though Nichols referred to the aide as a female. Aides who may have been exposed to the letter were tested with nasal swabs and being treated with the antibiotic Cipro as a precaution, said Dr. John Eisold, attending physician in the Capitol.

"They are innocent people caught up in a matter for which they have nothing to do," a somber-looking Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters at a news conference outside the Capitol. "I am very, very disappointed and angered."

In Trenton, N.J., Postal Inspector Tony Esposito and FBI officials said the letter to Daschle was postmarked in Trenton on Sept. 18, the same date and postmark on a letter that infected an NBC employee in New York last week.

The letter was only one of several anthrax scares at the Capitol on Monday. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said his aides reported a suspicious letter and were told by Capitol Police that their report was the 12th of the day.

The scares prompted a halt to all mail deliveries in the Capitol.

Also in Trenton, N.J., postal officials announced Monday that a mail carrier and post office maintenance employee in Trenton, where at least two anthrax-tainted letters were mailed, have shown symptoms of the disease. The mail carrier, who has flu-like symptoms, has started taking antibiotics. The maintenance employee, who has a poison ivy-like rash, has not yet received treatment.

Elsewhere, about 110 abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood facilities around the nation received envelopes in the mail Monday with white powder inside, according to clinic officials. Two of the envelopes have been tested by local health and law enforcement agencies. Neither envelope contained anthrax, officials determined.

Fears of anthrax also have spread around the globe.

Across Europe and elsewhere in the world, anthrax scares sent some people to hospitals and others home early from work uncertain of whether they had been exposed to the spores.

Dozens of government workers in Australia were hosed down after their office received a letter containing white powder, and the U.S. consulate in Melbourne received a similar scare. In Germany on Monday, officials were investigating a powdery substance found in the mailroom of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s offices.

A section of Canada’s Parliament was closed Monday when a worker developed a rash after opening mail in one of several anthrax scares nationwide. Several ambulances and police vehicles went to one of the Parliamentary buildings in the center of Ottawa after the feared anthrax exposure. Initial testing for anthrax spores was negative, said a spokesman for Ottawa’s emergency services.

In France, police conducted evacuations in four separate scares involving white powder arriving in the mail. Similar scares also caused evacuations in Lithuania and Portugal, and suspicious letters and packages were being examined in Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

Russian health authorities offered Monday to help the United States combat anthrax by sharing a vaccine developed to fend off American biological weapons during the Cold War.

Russia’s vaccine is completely different from the U.S. one, said Veniamin Cherkassky, a leading anthrax expert here. While the U.S. vaccine is chemically based and has to be repeated frequently, the Russian vaccine contains live anthrax strains and lasts for a year, he said.

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