October 2, 2008

Mailman Could Deliver Anthrax Relief

The mailman could be the one delivering antibiotic relief in the event an anthrax attack comes to your neighborhood.

Federal health officials have started a project in Minneapolis-St. Paul to give letter carriers a personal supply of emergency antibiotics. That way they are protected and ready to deliver aid to the rest of the city.

"These letter carriers are being asked to put their lives on the line to help their communities," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Wednesday. By ensuring they are protected first, "the carriers can be ready on short notice to take to the streets."

Since 2001, attacks involving anthrax-laced letters in the United States have killed five people, including two U.S. Postal Service workers from a facility in Washington, D.C.

The letter carriers would deliver thousands of doses of doxycycline, an antibiotic that can treat anthrax infection as well as some causes of pneumonia and Lyme disease.

The project tries to fix a big hurdle of emergency planning.

The government has drugs stockpiled in case of future bioterrorism, but no good way to quickly get them to panicked citizens.

Leavitt noted that if someone possibly has inhaled anthrax, the chances of survival are best if antibiotic treatment begins within 48 hours.

Anthrax infections can affect the skin and gastrointestinal system and can be treated if caught early. But if spores are inhaled, the symptoms are hard to diagnose.

U.S. Postal Service carriers could provide "a front-end quick strike," said the Health and Human Services Department's emergency planning chief, William Raub.

Test projects in Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston over the past two years paired letter carriers with police officers on holidays. Carriers volunteered to do double routes, delivering empty pill bottles along with a "This is a Test" flier explaining what was happening.

Raub said in Philadelphia, 50 carriers reached about 53,000 households in eight hours.

As for getting volunteers, the post office and its unions told the government that carriers who stepped up during this kind of emergency would need assurances that they and their families were fully protected.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, authorities will contact about 700 mail carriers to see if they would be willing to volunteer. Officials said more cities could be added starting next year.

Minneapolis was chosen because of its extensive bioterrorism preparations, Raub said. If the $500,000 pilot project works well, it could be offered to other cities starting next year.


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