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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Keeping Safe

Taking practical steps

By Alice Dembner, Globe Staff, 11/4/2001


How genuine is the risk?
Taking practical steps
Staying safe on the job
Handling new kind of stress
Talking with children
Is it just the flu?
What to do when in doubt
Hospital readiness
How the body fights back
Are there other threats?
Not all terror threats equal

How to talk to your kids
5 signs you need help
What works, what doesn't
How anthrax is diagnosed
Inside a bacterial invasion
In case of emergency...
Identifying a mail threat
Safety resources

Compare cold & flu to other bioterror threats:
Cold & Flu
Hemorrhagic Fever

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More anthrax coverage

Forget the gas mask. Skip the moon suit. And hold off buying antibiotics.

Unless your work puts you directly in the line of danger, common sense and vigilance may be your best defense against bioterrorism.

''It's prudent for people to keep alert in their neighborhoods for something unusual - someone you don't know driving around spraying something out of a ufsafebodytruck. But I don't think it's practical to build airtight bunkers in response to the threat,'' said Alfred DeMaria, director of communicable disease control for the state Department of Public Health.

Certainly it makes sense to examine your mail carefully for any item that appears suspicious and to wash your hands with soap and water after handling it. Even though the chances of receiving an anthrax-laced letter are small, there is a slight possibility that your mail might be contaminated inadvertently. But officials advise against trying to ''sanitize'' your mail by ironing, microwaving, or subjecting it to ultraviolet light.

''If you start to experiment with home remedies and if there was anthrax in the envelope, that could actually be more dangerous and possibly spread the spores,'' said John Auerbach, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

In any case, officials say the heat of an iron is probably insufficient to kill anthrax spores. They also caution that even a speck of dust can protect a spore from ultraviolet light and that there's no clear indication that home microwaves would disarm the spores.

Anthrax spores can be killed by autoclaving - a cleansing process used by medical offices that employs intense heat and steam. And some opportunists are hawking autoclaves for home use. But using an autoclave on mail would probably destroy it, and you might get exposed to the spores while putting the mail in the the device.

''What I'd recommend to myself, family, and friends is the same thing, which is look with scrutiny, wash your hands after you've handled the mail, and be . . . cognizant now of skin lesions'' that might indicate an infection with skin anthrax, said Jeff Koplan, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control. Skin anthrax looks like a spider bite, a swollen area with a depressed center that forms a dark scab.

Officials say biological weapons other than anthrax probably would not come by letter. Most of them would not survive in that dry environment. And in the case of an aerial attack of anthrax, smallpox, plague, or tularemia, we would either be engulfed by the time we were even aware of an attack or fortunate enough to be outside the danger zone. So while many Internet sites are selling protective equipment, public health specialists say we should save our pennies.

Gas masks, for example, work only if they are donned well before an attack, fit perfectly, and contain a new filter. Use by people unfamiliar with them can also be dangerous. DeMaria said that during the Gulf War more people in Israel suffocated from using gas masks improperly than were poisoned by the gas itself.

And you and your family should not stockpile or take antibiotics or other drugs to counteract biological agents unless your doctor or authorities have determined that you've been exposed or infected. Stockpiling drugs you don't need might result in a shortage for those who do need them, and taking antibiotics unnecessarily can help give birth to drug-resistant germs.

As for vaccines, they are not available for some biological agents and are not recommended at this stage because of the possibility of severe side effects.

What you can do is learn about the risks, symptoms, and treatments for diseases that might be spread by bioterrorists. And you can urge government officials and health authorities to prepare more fully to handle any attack.

For any emergency, it never hurts to have a stockpile of basic supplies, including nonperishable food, water, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, portable radio, and extra batteries. But special disinfectants or face masks are unnecessary unless someone in your family is infected with a contagious illness. Anthrax is not contagious, but smallpox and plague can be spread through face-to-face contact.

Botulism, another possible agent, is typically transmitted through food. A simple precaution to avoid illness, whether from an attack or spoilage, is to discard any food that looks, smells, or tastes bad. Boiling also kills botulism bacteria.

In examining your mail, the Postal Service recommends looking for these warning signs: oily stains, discoloration or odor, lopsidedness or lumpiness, unusual heaviness, excessive amounts of tape, personal or confidential labeling, excessive postage, strange handwriting or poor typing, no return address, or an unfamiliar sender, and incorrect addresses.

To prevent suspicions about anything you have mailed to others, be sure to address it correctly and include your name and a clear return address.

If you get suspicious mail, don't shake it, sniff it, or handle it. If possible, completely cover it with a towel or newspaper, leave the room, wash your hands, and call police. If you have already picked it up, place it in a plastic bag and then follow the same precautions.

This story ran on page 3 of the Boston Sunday Globe's Common-sense Guide to Keeping Safe on 11/4/2001.
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