As war in Afghanistan wages on, Americans continue to fight their own battle against anthrax. As of Tuesday, officials have counted a suspected three deaths from anthrax nationwide and suspect several other cases of infection.
Randy Hyman, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said he wants to assure students that he and the university crisis team have addressed this issue frequently in their regular meetings.
He feels Ball State is prepared for a possible anthrax infection or outbreak.
If an infection were to occur on Ball State's campus, Hyman said the university crisis team would have to work backward with the student, finding out where he or she was infected and who else may have been in that vicinity.
"Identifying the source of exposure would be absolutely critical," Hyman said. "Once we found that source, we could shut down or quarantine that area if need be."
Hyman noted that a lot of Midwestern residents do not feel at high risk for contracting anthrax, but he advises that citizens not take the threat lightly.
Hyman also said that if an infection or outbreak did occur, the university crisis team would fully disclose accurate facts as quickly as possible, over several different information venues. Mass e-mails and newspapers would be main sources for dispersing facts.
If necessary, the student discipline system will handle university anthrax hoaxes. No special forms of discipline would take place.
As for Indiana, although postal officials in Indianapolis told NBC News they have found anthrax spores in their facilities, no anthrax cases have been confirmed, according to Margaret Joseph, agency spokesman for the Indiana State Department of Health.
Her department has tested 245 of 330 submitted samples twice; they double check each sample to be sure it does not contain the bacteria. Joseph also said in the past two years before the recent panic, the Indiana State Department of Health had only tested five samples for anthrax and have never confirmed a case.
Anthrax is a potentially lethal disease caused by a spore-forming bacteria named Bacillus anthracis. The bacteria is normally found in farm animals such as sheep and goats. An infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation and gastrointestinal. Cutaneous infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut on the skin and produces a bump resembling an insect bite with a black center. This form is rarely fatal and can be treated with antibiotics.
The form raising the most concern is inhalation anthrax, where initial symptoms are similar to those of the common cold. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing difficulties and usually results in death.
Unlike the cold or flu, anthrax is not contagious. It can only be transmitted through contact with contaminated substances.
"I think a common misconception about the disease is that it is easily contagious," Ball State Health Science professor Marty Wood said. "If some lunatic decides to release anthrax spores in a cloud of wind, those in contact with that cloud of wind may be infected. But the people who come in contact with them cannot."
Although concern of contracting anthrax through the mail has received heavy media coverage, Wood said he does not believe there is any reason to fear opening personal mail in Muncie.
"I'm not sure I am particularly concerned about my mail personally. The average Muncie resident probably does not need to enact any safety measures in his own home," Wood said. "Be tuned in so you're aware of things that seem out of place. That's in general good advice with anything."
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, three types of antibiotics are approved for treating anthrax, but the Food and Drug Administration urges physicians not to prescribe medication for individuals to have on hand just in case. Indiscriminate prescribing of drugs added to widespread use will not only decrease the supply of the drug, but could also hasten the development of drug-resistant organisms.
Wood said there is currently no widely-accepted human anthrax vaccination, and he also discourages obtaining anthrax drugs, such as CIPRO, before infection occurs.
"That's the kind of thing where you don't want to cause mass hysteria. You have to be careful when stockpiling any drug," he said.
Joseph said she feels learning about the disease will ease a lot of fears and recommends that government or university Web sites have accurate facts. The Indiana State Department of Health Web site, www.state.in.us/isdh, posted a link about anthrax.
"What we as citizens need to do is stay calm," Joseph said. The goal of terrorism is to educe fear. It's fear that we have to fear most."