Preventing Anthrax Infection

Wash your hands after handling the mail – any mail – according to new recommendations from the US Postmaster General. This comes after a postal worker apparently contracted cutaneous anthrax not from a letter laced with a white powder, but from an originally innocent letter contaminated in a mail-sorting machine. While the risks of getting anthrax from general mail remain extremely low, I agree with thorough hand washing before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after handling the mail. Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held a live satellite briefing for physicians across the nation: Anthrax, What Every Clinician Should Know. I sat in a darkened auditorium with colleagues at Stanford and watched the briefing.

Part of the discussion centered on what someone should do if he or she encounters an envelope that makes them suspicious. Human nature often compels people to show the tainted envelope to someone else, “Come here and look at this!” Some people stare at the unidentified powder, poke it with a finger, or even sniff to see what it smells like. Some follow the advice I’ve heard to seal the letter in a plastic bag. The CDC recommends against all of this. Instead:

  • Immediately (and gently) set the envelope down.
  • Leave the room
  • (I recommend thoroughly washing the hands, especially before bringing them to your face)
  • Call the authorities, to have them evaluate and dispose of the letter.
  • Avoid touching, smelling, or tasting the powder, or exposing family, friends, or coworkers to the envelope.

Join us for the next several days for DrGreene’s discussion of smallpox, anthrax, and his surprising conclusions for children’s health.

Last medical review on: May 07, 2008
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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