WASHINGTON Government mail carriers would deliver emergency supplies of antibiotics to people in U.S. cities in the case of an anthrax attack, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials said on Wednesday.
The system has been tested in three large cities -- Seattle, Philadelphia and Boston -- and a pilot program is set to begin soon in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota.
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said there was no evidence any attack was imminent but that it was important for authorities to have a quick distribution system ready.
The U.S. Postal Service carriers who would bring the antibiotics from door to door all would be volunteers who would have advance supplies of antibiotics to protect themselves and their families, officials said.
Attacks involving anthrax-laced letters in the United States in 2001 killed five people, including two U.S. Postal Service workers from a facility in Washington, D.C., and made 13 sick. Thousands were given antibiotics to prevent disease.
The letter carriers would deliver thousands of doses of doxycycline, an antibiotic that can treat anthrax infection as well as some causes of pneumonia and Lyme disease.
Anthrax infections can affect the skin and gastrointestinal system and are easily treated if caught early. But if spores are inhaled, the symptoms are difficult to diagnose and by the time a patient is really sick, it is often too late to save him with antibiotics.
After the 2001 attacks more than 10,000 people took antibiotics to prevent infection in case they were exposed to the spores, which infect the lungs. The drugs they took included Bayer AG's ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, doxycycline and other antibiotics.
Following any new attacks, the mail carriers would be escorted by local police as they deliver supplies of a few days' worth of antibiotics directly to residences throughout an affected community, Leavitt said.
"The intentional release of anthrax spores is one of the most significant biological threats we face," Leavitt said.
"We have stockpiled millions of doses of antibiotics -- enough to meet the needs of several large cities. But terrorists attack without warning, and many people could fall ill from inhalation anthrax before we get them the stockpiled drugs," Leavitt added.
William Raub, science advisor to Leavitt, cited as one possible scenario an attack using a crop-dusting airplane dumping anthrax spores over a city.
He said authorities would like to have at least half of the letter carriers in a given city take part in the scheme. They would deliver a bottle of pills and a fact sheet on anthrax.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, authorities will contact about 700 mail carriers to see if they would be willing to volunteer. Officials said more cities could be added starting next year, but none has been selected yet.
"We have found letter carriers to be the surest way of getting pills to whole communities of people anywhere in the country," Leavitt said. After they undertook the initial deliveries, public health authorities would set up centers to resupply the community with antibiotics.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and David Storey)