Fear of spores

I might as well be afraid of a big, bad bogeyman lurking under my bed. I’m fully aware that the chances of me inhaling some anthrax spores released in Reno’s subway system—or sprinkled on my computer keyboard—are slim to none.

Usually, I consider myself immune to media hype. I’ve been the driving force behind a bit of disease-of-the-week, if-it-bleeds-it-leads journalism myself. I know what reporters write about when we’re stretching for stories. So when I first heard about the Florida photo editor who came down with anthrax, you’d expect that I would have maintained perspective. No problem.

It was just that there probably hadn’t been a single case1 of inhalation anthrax, a disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, in the United States since 1978, and now a Florida journalist is dead. I’ve ingested my share of virus fiction in novels and movies—the most memorable of which was Stephen King’s The Stand, in which the military covers up the contagion until it is Too Late.

And then, this week, another anthrax diagnosis in the same Florida media office. Don’t panic, say authorities. Don’t believe the authorities, say panickers. Invest in some Cipro now, says a Web site hawking the anthrax antibiotic. (If you buy 60 tablets for $399, one online pharmacy waives its $60 consulting fee.)

I visited the Cipro Web site with my 11-year-old son, Jesse.2 We had typed “symptoms of anthrax” into the Google.com search engine. We tried to visit the first link on the list, the Center for Disease Control site, www.cdc.gov, but we got the Web equivalent of a busy signal.

So Jesse and I checked out a U.S. Department of Defense info paper on anthrax.

“Anthrax is the preferred biological warfare agent because it is highly lethal,” the paper began. There are low barriers to the production of anthrax material that causes the disease. Production doesn’t require advanced technology. It’s easy to produce in large quantities. It’s stable and can be stored almost indefinitely. Infection via inhalation is almost always fatal. The paper goes on.3

“This is not encouraging,” Jesse said.

“Can I buy some anti-anthrax pills?” I asked my husband.


“Can I buy a gas mask?”


“Will you check under the bed for scary monsters?”


1. This compelling bit of info is from a 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association called “Anthrax as a Biological Weapon.” The article at the CDC Web site states that “of the numerous biological agents” that could basically be used to “cripple a city or region,” anthrax is the most serious.

2. When RN&R contributor Rob Tocalino stopped by the office to pick up a book earlier this week, he mentioned the second case of anthrax had been discovered. I wasn’t worried then. But I went home and mentioned how tired and achy I was to my husband—"I think I’m getting a cold,” I said—and he joked that I’d probably been exposed to anthrax. That’s just not funny.

3. The Department of Defense site, www.defenselink.mil, is worth a visit.