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Analyzing Anthrax

Analyzing AnthraxRecent events have propelled anthrax into the nation's headlines. But don't panic -- there are some important facts you should know about the disease, say Tufts experts.

Boston [10.16.01] Suddenly, anthrax is the topic of discussions in offices, classrooms and across breakfast tables around the country. Pharmacies are selling out of the drugs used to treat it and cautious Americans are on the lookout for suspicious mail and packages. But there is no reason to panic, say Tufts experts, who say there are some important facts you should know about the disease.

Anthrax spores, which cause the disease, have one of two origins -- some strains are naturally occurring, and others are manufactured. But both are extremely rare, says Dr. David Stone -- an expert on infectious diseases at Tufts' School of Medicine.

"This is not bacteria you can get in a supply house," he told the Boston Herald. "It's very highly regulated."

According to the Herald, federal law prohibits the manufacture of the spores and only one lab still stores the virus.

"The only facility known in the U.S. to store anthrax spores is the National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, Iowa," reported the Herald.

The naturally-occurring anthrax spores are also difficult to locate.

While it is possible to dig up spores from "infected" soil, Tufts' Dr. George Saperstein says the bacteria doesn't survive well in the northeast.

"We don't ordinarily see anthrax in New England," the professor from Tufts' School of Veterinary Medicine told the Herald. "I've never seen a case here."

Saperstein, the chair of Tufts' Department of Environmental and Population Health, said the acidic soil makes it very difficult for the spores to survive.

But nervous Americans have been stocking up on the antibiotic Cipro -- used to treat anthrax -- just in case.

Tufts Medicine's Dr. Stuart Levy said he's seen anecdotal evidence that sales of the drug have doubled since Sept. 11.

But the expert on drug resistance at Tufts told the London Telegraph that people shouldn't take the powerful antibiotic as a preventative measure.

"People are likely to use it as a prophylactic," Levy told the Telegraph. "There is a very real risk that this will lead to resistance."

Overuse of Cipro may cause more harm than good.

"The public health problem is that we are putting a useful antibiotic in the hands of the public without proper supervision." Levy told Agence France Presse -- an international news service.

And that could make anthrax much harder to treat in the future.

"The real harm is that we will be converting all of the bacteria that are currently treatable to resistance," Levy told ABC News.

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