D_Curran.jpg (8435 bytes)Suddenly the microscopic world of the clinical diagnostic lab is headline news and the topic of conversations and speculation at water coolers and in grocery store checkout lines.

What is anthrax? What are the chances of contracting it? What can I do to limit my chances of exposure to it and other deadly microorganisms that might figure into some vicious bioterrorism plan?

For clinical laboratory professionals, particularly microbiologists and microbiology technologists, it’s a good time to educate the public about the importance of clinical laboratory science. People are curious, including me. That’s why I rang up Jay Sperry, chairman of the department of cell and molecular biology and professor of microbiology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I.

Sperry has been pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of media coverage of the Anthrax scare. “Most of the time, reporters don’t pay much attention to detail when they’re talking about science,” he said. “But this time, they’re doing a fairly good job of it. If only the press could somehow convey the message to the populace that anthrax is a great weapon for terrorism but a lousy weapon for killing people.”

“They’ve tried it before, and they weren’t very successful. Right now we have three or four people with pulmonary anthrax, but when you consider how many were exposed, it’s pretty low odds. It’s a major scare problem that can make some people panic, but as far as being a major threat to most people’s health or life, I don’t see it.” The first person to die from anthrax reportedly held the anthrax-containing letter to his face and breathed in the spores. But that does not explain the deaths of two postal workers (as of this writing) in our nation’s capital.

Anthrax is a disease of farm animals, so the United States vaccinates them against it. Bacillus anthracis also is “a big fat bacillus,” that is not easily inhaled deep into the lungs, according to Sperry. It’s a moderately large bacterium, about 5 to 10 micrometers in size. For particles to be easily inhaled deep into the lungs, which is what causes pulmonary anthrax, the bacterium need to be about 5 micrometers or smaller. And weaponizing anthrax, which is genetically altering the bacteria to make it smaller, is not easy.

Does anthrax have to be weaponized to kill someone? Sperry says no, but a terrorist would try to deliver high number of spores so the targeted person might inhale enough (6,000 to 8,000) to cause pulmonary anthrax. None of the recently mailed anthrax spores found were determined to have been “weaponized,” but they may have been milled or mechanically altered in a lab, according to Sperry. It would have to be done in a sophisticated lab such as a Biosafety Level 3 or Level 4 lab, but a person partially trained in microbiology could easily grow the organism and produce a culture. Anthrax is apparently the dandelion of bacteria, growing at room temperature in nutrient agar, the least nourishing culture media used by labs.

“It is definitely more of a threat for high-profile places like Washington, D.C., and the big media newsrooms and mailrooms,” Sperry said. “But for the general public, there’s a moderately low to almost no risk at this point of contracting anthrax.”

“It’s scary because it’s unknown. It’s easily thrown into an envelope and mailed, and you can contract the disease from just that. So it has a big scare factor. It’s sinister, but it’s not going to seek out and kill 500,000 people.”

Sounds as if anthrax shares some characteristics with whoever sent it – common, simple and not very powerful when unmasked. And we in the clinical lab must be the vigilent investigators in this biochemical war, alerting caregivers to facilitate the best outcomes for patients.

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Coleen Curran