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Institute handles calls on potential bioterror

Campus Police and MIT safety and environmental officers have responded to 21 reports of possible biological sabotage since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They sent 13 of the specimens to the State Laboratory for anthrax tests, none of which was positive.

The incidents--reported primarily by staff members who open, retrieve and process mail--included one letter that had these telltale signs: handwritten address, excess postage, mailed from overseas and an odd-colored envelope. After it was tested, the request for an autograph from a young African student was delivered to principal research scientist Timothy Berners-Lee at the Laboratory for Computer Science.

Other calls have included a letter sent from MIT to Africa that was returned as undeliverable, a letter from the Middle East sent to the Muslim prayer room, a person who felt sick after opening a letter sent to his home, and a library worker who was suspicious of a letter from a person who wanted to donate a book on bioethics. The first report was on Oct. 16, five weeks after terrorists crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A letter is considered suspicious if it contains a written threat, has excessive postage, includes a handwritten or pasted address or is of unknown origin, and contains a powdery substance. Those addressed to prominent members of the Institute community receive particular scrutiny.

"MIT emergency responders are making professional judgments relative to the level of risk based on a detailed, written triage protocol we have recently developed," said Director of Public Safety Anne P. Glavin.

The suspicious-looking substances sent to the lab for testing are believed to include sheetrock, construction dust, common household dust, crushed packing material, nondairy creamer and flour. "In a number of cases, there wasn't enough dust to test," said Claudia A. Mickelson, deputy director of Environmental Health and Safety.

Cambridge Fire Department hazardous materials inspectors responded to most of the calls. In some cases, offices and surrounding areas were decontaminated and people who may have had contact with the material were checked by the MIT Medical personnel. Four received antibiotics as a precautionary measure.

Dr. Howard M. Heller, an infectious disease specialist in MIT Medical, said the department had enough of the antibiotics ciprofloxacin, levoflaxacin and doxycycline on hand to treat 1,000 people for three days. He said the federal emergency supply "can usually arrive within 24 hours for the continued therapy if needed."

MIT's chief of medicine, Dr. David V. Diamond, reported that physicians and nurses have participated in four training sessions at which symptoms and treatment of anthrax, smallpox and other infectious diseases were discussed. These sessions--conducted by Heller, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospital Administrators--have been videotaped and are available for review by MIT Medical clinicians.

Dr. Diamond said health facilities in Cambridge have developed a plan to share resources and coordinate emergency efforts if there were "a large-scale attack." He said doctors from MIT, Harvard and the other hospitals in Cambridge have participated in regularly scheduled conference calls since October.

MIT's associate chief of mental health services, Dr. Kristine A. Girard, said only a few people, mostly staff and faculty members, had sought counseling specifically for terrorist-related issues. For students, the threat of anthrax "doesn't seem as pressing in the same way as tomorrow's problem sets," she said. Some ongoing patients expressed "heightened anxiety" after Sept. 11, she said.

"October and November are typically very busy," Dr. Girard said. "We have been busy, but not significantly busier than in previous years."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 5, 2001.

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