by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
November 19, 2001
WHO'S AFRAID OF ANTHRAX?
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It was a short drive to the Post Office, yet I wondered as I drove if this were just wasted motion. My husband had warned his sister about opening her mail, since it would go through the Brentwood Post Office to reach her Washington, D.C., apartment.
But it was her birthday. Surely, the bright pink envelope would not be left unopened in the brass mail slot in her lobby. Knowing Sis, though, it probably would be. Surprise! I couldn't approach my own Post Office. Emergency vehicles blocked every road into the facility, flashing lights underscoring the importance of their DO NOT ENTER signs.
A man passing in front of me stopped at my call to ask if the Post Office were open. "No," he said, striding toward my lowered window. "My wife's in there and she called me on my cell phone." He huffed. "Somebody found latex gloves in the parking lot and everybody's going to hell in a handbasket."
He rotated nervously in half turns before he began again: "There is no anthrax on St. Simons Island! What's the matter with them?"
He pursed his lips, pressed his right fist into his left palm nervously and began again: "Every emergency vehicle is here. God forbid there's an emergency; these guys will trip over themselves. They're in there in full regalia covered from head to toe and it's a tee-shirt day," he said, whisking his arm above the elbow to show what he meant.
I imagine the exercise had value, after all. If they sweep downenough post offices answering false alarms, they'll know anthrax when it registers on a meter.
Anthrax is not new. In 1500 BC, the Fifth Egyptian Plague was thought to be anthrax and in the year 1600, some 60,000 cattle in Europe were killed by the Black Bane, also considered to be anthrax. Not until the late 1800s did scientists confirm anthrax as bacterial in origin and develop animmunization for livestock against the disease.
Because of the catch phrase, "All's fair in love or war," it is presumed German agents in the United States injected horses, mules, and cattle with anthrax on their way to Europe during World War I. And, no doubt as well, Japan started biological warfare in Manchuria in 1937, which included tests with anthrax.
On an island off the coast of Scotland in 1942, the United Kingdom experimented with anthrax and, it was learned, the island has only recently been decontaminated. We, in the United States, started developing anthrax weapons in 1943. We stopped all offensive biological weapons programs in 1969. However, the work continues for defense. And, now we have a vaccine, fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
As deadly as it is, this common ordinary word does not invoke fear when we hear it. Perhaps it's because it's always been part of our language.
"Don't go running in that field barefoot, those cows might have anthrax."
"Be sure you cook that pork, you might get trichinosis."
"Don't go in that barn, you might get tetanus, you know, lock jaw."
That's what we heard growing up but for decades now, those diseases have been eradicated in this country. Tetanus could be a threat since it grows in animal feces, but vaccinations good for 10 years are available with boosters only becoming necessary if you travel abroad.
We're afraid for the people exposed, we're concerned about how they came in contact with it, and we follow their course of treatment. So far, we're not in a panic. Unlike AIDS, this is not unknown and it's the fear of the unknown that causes panic. Before we knew what AIDS was, we didn't want to turn a doorknob without wondering who opened it last.
Just as anthrax is not new in the world, so also is it not new as a concern. In 1998, an anthrax vaccination plan for all military members was approved. Our government noticed how easy it would be ... considering the ricin released in Tokyo in the early '90s.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has brought home "the front" in asking us to be a neighborhood watch.
And, that's good, to a point. But, while the troops are drawing lines in the sand, I'd just as soon keep my head in it.
I don't want to fear fear. I don't want to feel anxious. So far, so good, but my pulse is quickening.
When we as individuals can do nothing about the threats but trust our government, then that's what I do: sit here and trust.
With today's post office closing and Atlanta's airport shutting down for eight hours because of a gate-jumper a few days ago, I know we're at the ready. I trust if they make mistakes they will err on the side of caution.
Yet my vision failed me today when my left eye couldn't believe what my right eye was seeing.
To the left, the pretty pink envelope with the blue Statue of Liberty stamp, primed to be dropped into the familiar blue mailbox; to the right, men and womem in white biohazard suits sweeping the area for deadly anthrax, quite literally a plague against humanity.
All I wanted to do was mail a letter. Was that too much to ask?