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The case of anthrax that wasn't(Dateline USA).

The case of anthrax that wasn't: When Kenya's ministry of health rushed to pronounce that an anthrax-infected letter had been discovered, the authorities appear to have completely disregarded the possible consequences of raising such unfounded alarm. (Dateline USA)

Anthrax bacillus is not new to Africa, the bacteria is regularly diagnosed in cattle, goats and herds of free ranging wildlife. Common throughout Africa's Savannah belt it is known as the "Sudden Death Syndrome" by wildlife experts. Powerful enough to kill a three ton elephant within 20 minutes, it is endemic from Kenya on the east coast to Namibia in the south west. It has occasionally been diagnosed in people who eat contaminated game meat or come in contact with infected animal hides.

But delivered through the mail in a sophisticated white powder form as an instrument of terror, milled into five millimetre particles so that it becomes an invisible, weapons-grade killer that attacks one's glands and spleen through the breakdown of one's immune system?

On October 11 Kenya was the first nation other then the United States to announce that it had been targeted in the new bio-terrorism war, or so it initially appeared. The presence of a packet of white powder in a parcel of cloth samples mailed by Kenyan doctor Samuel Mwinzi's daughter from Atlanta tested positive for the anthrax spores. "Confirmed" was the word used by Kenya's Health Minister Sam Ongeri with little obvious thought to the consequences of his statement. 'Reckless' seems a more appropriate description.

"Express mailed by a relative, the package of cloth samples contained a transparent polythene packet, inserted after delivery of the parcel to a mail facility in the US," the Minister dramatically announced.

Claiming the Kenya was being targeted for its support of President Bush in his fight against world terrorism, Minister Ongeri appealed for calm. "Potentially infecting the doctor and four family members living in the same residence, the powder was immediately sent for testing to Nairobi Hospital and then to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) where preliminary test results confirmed the presence of anthrax spores," he added ominously.

The news hit the world like a bombshell. Suddenly America's war on terrorism was not confined to the US alone. How widespread, how infectious and how costly would preventative measures be was suddenly of concern to governments around the world.

No sooner had this startling news been revealed when further reports of possible anthrax tainted letters being received by the UN office in Nairobi and by a businessman in the upcountry town of Nyeri were reported. The anthrax scare in Kenya, like in the US, was gathering momentum. Death from a deadly powder had suddenly been added to the average Kenyan citizen's travails.

"The brown, tattered envelope bearing a Pakistani postage stamp in the upper left hand corner had the word "immaculate" written in blue ink on the front," UNEP spokesperson Torte Brevik said while confirming that the envelope's white powder contents were being tested by a task force set up by the Kenya government. Consisting of officials from the Health Ministry, the Kenya postal service and the Atlanta based Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the tests were expected to be carried out under US laboratory procedures.

Contradictory messages

"We would ask all Kenyans not to panic, but to remain calm. The government has the capacity and capability to deal with the situation," Health Minister Ongeri told the Kenyan people on October 18. In a nation where the vast majority of people have no way of communicating other then via mail, the possibility of being infected with a death inducing disease while contacting friends and relatives was a daunting thought indeed.

Both scares - the Nyeri and UN letter--quickly turned out to be fictitious. Or were they? As in the US where Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Congressional Democratic leader Tom Daschle were issuing contradictory statements as to the anthrax's toxicity and method of delivery, so too the same happened in Kenya, only this time between Kenya's Health Minister Ongeri and US Ambassador Johnny Carson supported by FBI officials.

One week later only the letter sent to doctor Mwinzi was still considered tainted after follow up tests, and even that was questionable. By then press reports were head-lining six new letters, a second to the UN, one to Kenya's Parliamentary Deputy Speaker Joab Omino, one to tour operators Abercrombie & Kent, two to Kenya Railways and one which had arrived via TNT courier services at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Whether anthrax was really present or whether the Kenya postal service and health department were simply reacting to what was an ever burgeoning story in the US has never been fully clarified. Some US State Department officials even volunteered that Kenya was simply trying to draw attention to itself in order to gain sympathy and to prevent the further cutting off of aid due to the Moi government's corruption and human rights abuses.

"In the rush to join the war on terrorism as declared by President George Bush, Kenya wants to be seen as on the side of the US, particularly after the violent pro-Osama bin Laden demonstrations that rocked the coastal city of Mombasa," State Department officials confidentially stated. This viewpoint gained credence on October 23 when it was announced by the FBI that the doctor's envelope tested negative for anthrax spores following a more comprehensive test in the CDC laboratory in Atlanta where it had been forwarded for additional testing.

"After further testing of the sample with technical advice from the CDC and Nairobi embassy medical staff, the initial positive result cannot be replicated or confirmed," US embassy spokesperson Peter Claussen said October 25. An attached FBI statement clarified that "the tests conducted showed a mildew or fungus consistent with mould, not anthrax."

Not much credence was given to the American results either. Blasted left and right by the press and TV for their inept handling of the crisis, it had become obvious to the American public that no US authority had a clear idea of how deadly and widespread the anthrax really was. "Finely milled like talcum powder", "lumpy and the size of dog chow," were not statements that engendered confidence, certainly not in postmen who refused to go to work until all mail sorting facilities had been thoroughly cleansed.

Spectre of bio-killer

For the first time in living history, the spectre of an invisible bio-killer travelling throughout the world in something as mundane as an unopened envelope had both Kenyan and US authorities standing on their heads. Their scientists' differing opinions caused a diplomatic brouhaha not seen since the departure of the controversial US ambassador Smith Hempstone.

Only Dr Mwinzi cheered the American finding. If the powder proved negative for anthrax his life could resume its normal course. If it turned out positive not only would he be in mortal danger but his daughter, her friends, their relatives and every person she had spoken to as well as all their neighbours would be hauled in for the FBI's draconian questioning. Under the new Patriot Law signed by President Bush October 26, his daughter could also have been held for one week incommunicado, if not longer. As a suspected terrorist, life for her would have suddenly proved very difficult.

And as always the brooding, sinister face of terrorist number one, Osama bin Laden - or as U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld calls him, UBL - seemed to hover in the background, even if President George W. Bush was unable to confirm the Saudi dissident as the actual anthrax perpetrator. That a home-grown American citizen could ultimately turn out to be the dastardly culprit was too much for anyone in the administration even to voice.

Whatever the final test results, the fact that Kenya was able to deal with the anthrax emergencies so expeditiously is remarkable, a real tribute to the Kenya Medical Research Institute's scientists. Displaying surprising organisation and professional approach, the institute immediately set up a security laboratory to cope with the overload.

"Anthrax is a fairly ordinary organism and we have the necessary personnel, lab equipment, reagents and know-how to test and document it," KEMRI institute director Dr Gabriel Mbugua stated. Adding that he was assembling the high security laboratory in case more dangerous organisms were detected, Dr Mbugua assured Kenyans that his organisation was capable of dealing with other bio-terrorist weapons such as pneumonic plague, smallpox, tularaema, brucellosis or even the dreaded Ebola virus.

Anti-US demonstrations

Following the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has maintained a well staffed office in Kenya. Some American CDC staff are also attached to the embassy due to Kenya being considered a potential haven for terrorist cells directed by Osama bin Laden's Al-Quaida organisation. The fact that two demonstrations in support of bin Laden were well attended and that Kenya Muslims rallied to Afghanistan's Taliban cause, puts Kenya squarely in President Bush's sights.

"Americans helped bin Laden to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, but when they attempted to use him to destroy Islam he resisted and that is why they are now hunting him down," Sheik Ali Shee, the chairman of the Kenya Council of Imams said in addressing the thousands of demonstrators who burned US, British and Israeli flags.

This did not go down well with Congressional power brokers who just happened to be considering the Foreign Aid Bill at the time. Fortunately for the Kenya government they had to postpone deliberations and evacuate the buildings for six days due to further anthrax "hot spots" being discovered in various parts of the complex.

No matter how much the Kenya government protests that it is actively moving against terrorism, banners such as "Osama we love you" and "Allah should give the Americans more Anthrax" carried by the demonstrators strike a reactionary attitude in Washington's corridors of power. The fact that many Kenya Muslims do not agree with Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist views and deplore the loss of life in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon got lost in the US media's strident reporting of the Kenya demonstrations. "You are with us or against us," is the prevailing American attitude and reasoning that the demonstrators are just a vocal minority are impatiently brushed aside.

African nations desperately need America's goodwill. Their future development is conditional on US aid being restored once the current crisis is resolved or reduced to a low intensity conflict such as that of the drug war. While Kenya's rush to cry "wolf" is understandable it is also counter productive. At a time when the US feels beleaguered it would have been advantageous to have reported the case as being "potentially" anthrax rather than as "confirmed".

Offering Africa's considerable expertise in detecting and fighting the disease rather then in rushing to judgement would have enlisted Kenya many friends in Congress. As it was, it simply raised the spectre of the Kenya government trying to gain itself "wiggle room" in the on-going foreign aid issue.

Terrorism is a world-wide problem and Kenya has suffered its share. Two hundred and fifty-seven dead Kenyans in the Embassy bombings bear testament to that. Now is the time for Kenyan officials to act responsibly, rather then sensationally. After all, which other country has as much experience in fighting anthrax on a daily basis, or a research organisation with as much capability in dealing with the bacillus at its source?
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Author:Vesely, Milan
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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