Authorities are scrambling to find out how a New York woman critically ill with inhalation anthrax contracted the often fatal disease.
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"The woman is critically ill," New York City Health Commissioner Neal Cohen said as he announced the 61-year-old hospital worker has tested positive for inhalation anthrax. "At this point she is struggling for survival."
The patient, a Bronx resident employed at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, is the first person in the country to be diagnosed with the disease who does not work at a mail facility or have ties to the media.
"The reason that this particular case is concerning is because it doesn't fit the pattern that we've seen with the other illnesses," said Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control. "There's no clear linkage with mail in the way that all of the other cases had a very clear linkage."
The woman works in a basement stockroom that, up until a remodeling undertaken over the past two weeks, was combined with the health facility's mailroom.
Nine other people have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax in the United States, including four postal workers and an employee at a State Department mail facility in Washington, two postal workers in New Jersey and two employees at a tabloid publishing company in Florida. Three of those have died.
"It does appear to be different than the previous cases that we were able to trace back to exposure either at a post office or mail that went through a particular post office," Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said in an interview with ABCNEWS, referring to the New York case.
"You've got the FBI, the Department of Justice, [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] taking a look at where she worked … [and] where she lived, to see if we can determine how she was exposed."
The woman was hospitalized Sunday night and remains in serious condition.
• Cases Raise Home Mail Concerns
The confirmation of the first case of inhalation anthrax in New York came after officials announced that a New Jersey resident had contracted cutaneous anthrax, the far less dangerous skin form of the disease.
The 51-year-old woman works as an accountant at a business that receives its mail from a Hamilton, N.J., postal facility, which is known to have processed anthrax-contaminated letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office on Capitol Hill, NBC News headquarters in New York and the New York Post.
The resident, who was released from the hospital Monday, is the first person in New Jersey to test positive for anthrax who does not work for the Postal Service.
Although the causes of infection in the two cases are unknown, officials say both raise concerns about whether private citizens are at risk of being infected by anthrax through mail delivered to their homes.
"Up to yesterday, there was no evidence at all that there could be or is an individual in which there might be the reasonable question, 'Did they get infected from … a piece of mail that went to their home?'" Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said today at a White House news conference. "That is being intensively investigated right now."