Healthbeat 2001 No. 1.jpgHealthbeat 2001 No. 1.jpg

Sometime in early October, international news reports on United States citizens being afflicted with anthrax, a bioterrorism agent allegedly found in letters and being used by terrorists against Americans and their allies, were read on newspapers.

Highly imaginative Filipinos soon thought that since the government pledged support to the US in its battle against international terrorism, then the country could also be a likely target. In no time at all, people started to wonder what to do once “anthrax” gets its way to the country. What if it also gets through the mail? And so, the panic began.

To allay unfounded fears, the Department of Health (DOH) advised people to be extra careful in opening their mail and to decontaminate themselves by bathing with soap and water for 15 minutes if they get exposed to anthrax. The DOH also advised that people should send their clothes and suspect mail in a sealed bag to DOH for laboratory tests. (PD Inquirer, Oct. 16)

In an attempt to explain further, the DOH said that anthrax is not new in the country, but in another form. The Department said that is common in Northern Luzon where farmers acquire it through exposures from infected animals. The DOH even offered information that anthrax is primarily a disease of cattle and that an epidemic actually took place in 1999 in Ilocos Sur, which affected 21 people (who developed skin lesions) and killed five carabaos. The farmers contracted it by eating a carabao that died from the disease. DOH said that anthrax is curable by antibiotics such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and ciprofloxacin, among other. (PD Inquirer, Oct. 16)

Soon, the DOH started to alert the public on “anthrax” letters. This came about after many incidents involving “anthrax-in-mail” were made known. Former president Cory Aquino received mail suspected to be laced with anthrax. The Quezon City central post office was thrown into panic after two-letter packets from Singapore was discovered to contain a powdery substance believed to be anthrax. Cabanatuan City post office detected letters allegedly containing powdery substance. Several doctors in the Dr. Paulino Garcia Memorial Hospital in the same city claimed to have received suspicious letters. Eight Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority employees in its Administration building were sent to a secluded area for disinfection and medical examination after handling two letters. (Manila Standard, Oct. 18).

To help calm the nervous public, President Macapagal-Arroyo said that although people should be suspicious of the claimed anthrax-laden mail, they should not be alarmed. The President said that the most important thing is to be aware of what one can do in case there is an unusual outbreak of diseases. She advised that in case an anthrax attack actually happens, people need not worry since anthrax antibiotics are ready (Manila Meteor, Oct. 18)

Meanwhile, health authorities reported that none of the 110 suspect letters and parcels submitted to DOH for testing turned positive for the anthrax bacteria. (Manila Times, Oct. 19)

When asked about the possibility of anthrax entering the country and Filipinos receiving a letter with anthrax spores, Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said that chances are even less than that of winning the lotto twice a row. (PD Inquirer, Oct. 19)

To assure that drugstores do not exploit the bioterrorism fear that gripped the nation these days, the DOH started to monitor drug prices in the market. It also assured the public that there would be no price hike in the prices of medicine. (RP Daily Expose, Oct. 24)

On the international scene, there were reports that the anthrax scare had hit the Philippine consulate in Los Angeles. The news said that the consulate personnel were evacuated after the office received a package feared to contain anthrax spores. The package sent experts and bomb squads from Los Angeles Police Department scrambling to the consulate. It was a false alarm but the incident raised fears that the Philippine government is becoming a terrorist’s target because of the country’s all-out support for the US-led war against terrorism. (PD Inquirer, Oct. 27)