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October 22, 2001

Students inquire about anthrax tests, vaccinations

By Louise Donahue

The current bioterrorism scare is being felt at the UCSC Student Health Center, where doctors and nurses are seeing a number of students who want to have anthrax tests, vaccinations and prescriptions for the antibiotic Cipro--just in case.

Dr. Leslie Elkind has had some requests for the antibiotic Cipro, but said it is against Health Center policy to dispense it strictly as a precautionary measure. Photo: Louise Donahue
While reports of anthrax discoveries, tests and treatment have been all over the news lately, the health center is unable to comply with students' requests for tests or vaccines and is not dispensing Cipro to be taken without any evidence of exposure or illness.

Anthrax tests are done at a limited number of laboratories--California has five--and are done only for government and law enforcement agencies, said Dr. Leslie Elkind, Student Health Services director. "It's not a routine test; it can't be done on a routine basis," said Elkind.

While field tests have been used in some nationally publicized cases, those tests are not definitive, Elkind said, requiring follow-up lab tests that take several days. The lab tests are only done in cases of credible threats, Elkind said.

Some of the students worried about anthrax are experiencing flu-like symptoms, which anthrax can cause.

Others have asked about being vaccinated against anthrax, but that is also not an option. Anthrax vaccine is not available to civilians and is in short supply even for members of the U.S. military, some of whom had been vaccinated earlier to be prepared for any bioterrorism attacks abroad.

"There's nowhere that anyone can get an anthrax vaccine," Elkind said.

(The manufacturer of the vaccine used by troops has been shut down because of quality control problems. Even if the vaccine became available, though, it requires six doses over 18 months, making it difficult to use on civilians.)

Elkind said the health center had also received some requests--though "not as many as I'd feared"--for the antibiotic Cipro. The antibiotic is considered the drug of choice in treating anthrax, and nervous patients around the country have requested prescriptions for Cipro as a precaution.

The health center is not dispensing Cipro as a precaution for those who are simply worried, Elkind said. "As a public health measure it doesn't make sense for everyone to take Cipro."

"At this point, the likelihood of a bioterrorism attack affecting us here is so small that there's not much point in people being anxious." Elkind noted that most of the people who have received letters containing anthrax have been in high-profile media or government positions. "When people here get flu-like symptoms, they should not be thinking they might have anthrax," he said. "It's probably just the flu."

Asked about reports that use of mental health drugs has increased in New York and Washington, D.C., Elkind acknowledged that the threat of anthrax attacks can be "very scary." He said the stress is especially hard on people who had difficulty coping even before the September 11 attacks.

"There's a definite sense that people are much closer to the breaking point. We're definitely seeing a lot of people upset, more than usual."

Additional information on anthrax is available at the following sites:

The Centers for Disease Control home page, and a section on frequently asked questions.

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