LANTANA, Fla. Relatives of a Florida man who contracted a fatal case of anthrax are being given antibiotics as a precaution and his co-workers have been tested and cleared, health authorities said Saturday.
The search to find out how 63-year-old Bob Stevens contracated the rare and extremely lethal inhaled form of the disease expanded one day after his death.
More than 50 health and law enforcement officials have fanned out across Palm Beach County to track his movements over the past two months and look for other possible cases. Officials are also going over medical records in four North Carolina counties that he might have visited recently.
"We have a long chronology of common activities we need to pursue," Florida epidemiologist Dr. Steven Wiersma said. "We don't have any really hot leads at this time."
Investigators are awaiting test results from soil and other specimens. The results could take days.
No other cases of anthrax have been reported in the area. Wiersma said several of Stevens' co-workers at the supermarket tabloid The Sun have been tested, but results were negative. Antibiotics are being given to close family members.
Officials have said there is no evidence that Stevens was the victim of terrorism. Wiersma said tests of Stevens' blood helped confirm that belief because the anthrax in the sample responded to penicillin. Anthrax developed by some countries as a biological weapon could be resistant to the antibiotic, he said.
The Sept. 11 hijackings have put many people on edge about bioterrorism.
Officials believe Stevens contracted anthrax naturally in Florida. The disease can be contracted from farm animals or soil, though the bacterium is not normally found among wildlife or livestock in the state. Stevens was described as an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing and gardening.
Investigators have cast a wide net in their search in Florida.
County medical examiners are looking over any unexplained deaths, but have not found any cases connected to anthrax. Veterinarians have been told to be on alert for animals who might have the disease, but none have turned up.
Investigators also are visiting restaurants, parks and other locations he frequented or even visited casually, Wiersma said.
Health officials are checking intensive care units of area hospitals to check records going back 30 days for suspicious cases. They should be finished Monday, said Tim O'Connor, a county health department spokesman. The disease has an incubation period of up to 60 days.
Meanwhile, the health department is fielding hundreds of calls from worried or curious citizens. Some want to know what the symptoms are, while others ask where they can get a vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease, O'Connor said.
They are told a vaccine is available only to the military, but they are not at risk because the disease is not contagious, he said.
Only 18 inhalation cases in the United States were documented in the 20th century, the most recent in 1976 in California. The last anthrax case in Florida was in 1974, according to the state health department.