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East: Anthrax Fears Cross Globe

Fears about anthrax may have started in the United States, but they are spreading across the globe. And the nations of Eastern and Central Europe are not immune from the scare. Suspicious packages are turning up everywhere -- from apartment blocks to the offices of businesses and politicians. All reported anthrax cases in Europe have turned out to be false alarms, but that doesn't seem to be putting people in the region at ease.

Prague, 19 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this week, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman received what was described as a suspicious letter, raising fears that it could contain anthrax bacteria.

Envelopes and packages containing suspicious powders or warning of germ attacks have been reported far and wide -- in Britain, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Slovakia, Russia, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states.

But like nearly every other such case throughout the world -- including white powder sent in the mail to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- the letter to Zeman turned out to be a hoax.

In the United States, where the scare began, more than 30 people have tested positive for exposure to the potentially deadly bacteria and at least six people have developed the anthrax infection after handling or coming into contact with letters bearing anthrax spores.

Yesterday, Kenya's health minister reported the first positive case of anthrax spores in a letter outside the United States. The letter had been mailed from the U.S. city of Atlanta.

The anthrax scare is inspiring hundreds of hoaxes and costing governments and businesses thousands of dollars as they check out each suspicious letter or package.

French courts yesterday sentenced four people in separate cases to prison terms of several months for setting off anthrax alerts with false letters.

In Slovakia, the Interior Ministry says the country is spending $200 each time it tests a suspicious letter for the presence of anthrax spores. In Bosnia's Serb entity, Republika Srpska, police recently mistook 50 packages containing perfume samples for possible anthrax. Croatia has registered some 100 suspicious letters. Not one has contained a trace of anthrax.

In Latvia, two cases of possible anthrax have been reported. One case does appear suspicious. An elderly woman in the port city of Liepaja became ill shortly after receiving a letter containing a powdery white substance. There is no indication that anthrax is involved, but police are having the substance tested. As a precaution, the woman's apartment and surrounding area were decontaminated.

A package containing an unidentified white powder was found at the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania and sent for testing. And a package containing powder was being tested after being received by the Hungarian subsidiary of the U.S. firm General Electric.

In Bulgaria, there have been 26 reported anthrax-related cases. Eighteen of these have proved groundless, while the remaining are still being investigated. Police in Bulgaria have detained three people who are believed to have mailed bogus anthrax-laden packages. Our correspondent in Bulgaria reports that press coverage of the anthrax scare in Bulgaria has bordered on sensationalism, although there has been a good dose of practical advice about how to handle suspicious mail.

Possibly the best advice, however, has come from the World Health Organization in Geneva. It said in a statement yesterday that "mass hysteria and panic is not a sensible response" to the mounting number of anthrax reports.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization is asking governments everywhere not to take any chances by increasing surveillance of food and water supplies.

Some countries seem resistant to the anthrax angst. Not a single anthrax-related case has been reported in Turkmenistan, for example. Though all cases throughout the world are being dealt with seriously by officials, some have ended on a humorous note.

In one instance of a suspicious-mail scare, tens of thousands of bulky envelopes caused fear in Slovakia -- until police realized they were part of a marketing campaign for feminine hygiene products.

(The South Slavic, Latvian, Turkmen, and Bulgarian services contributed to this report.)

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.