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Tests Confirm Anthrax in Mail At U.S. Embassy in Lithuania

By John Daniszewski
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

Employees of the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania will be given precautionary antibiotics after a laboratory confirmed Thursday that at least one of the embassy’s mail pouches had been contaminated with anthrax, an embassy spokesman said.

Tests on the empty mailbag came back positive, the first proven case of anthrax contamination from the United States being spread to Europe. But no embassy employees in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, have exhibited signs of contracting any form of the disease, the spokesman said.

“We are 100 percent sure that we are dealing with anthrax here,” said Stanislovas Tarbunas, deputy director of the Lithuanian Public Health Center, who called the finding by its laboratory “extremely alarming.”

Tarbunas ruled out any mistake. “In recent days, we have examined 54 mail items sent to various recipients containing different kinds of powder,” he said. “But this is the first time we discovered the genuine anthrax agents.”

Embassy spokesman Michael Boyle said five empty mailbags received at the embassy between Oct. 11 and Oct. 24 were given to the laboratory for testing last week because of the announcement that State Department mail-handling facilities in Washington and Sterling, Va., where they originated, were contaminated with anthrax.

Preliminary tests Wednesday indicated that two of the bags in Vilnius contained anthrax traces, and on Thursday it was confirmed that at least one of those had tested positive for the anthrax bacillus, he said.

Boyle said the bag was part of the so-called “diplomatic pouch,” a secure system of distributing mail to U.S. diplomats worldwide that is separate from the general mail service. Such shipments were suspended by the State Department on Oct. 24.

The bags that reached Vilnius were handled by commercial carriers for part of the way but would have remained sealed until they reached the embassy, Boyle said. At the embassy, the bags were opened, and the letters and packages inside were distributed before the order to check recently sent mailbags for possible contamination.

Three embassy employees involved in mail-handling already began antibiotics treatment as a precaution last week. Now that the presence of anthrax has been proved, antibiotics will be offered to all of the approximately 120 embassy staff on a voluntary basis, Boyle said.

“From what we are instructed and what I have read, fortunately, anthrax can be treated,” he said, stressing that no one has displayed any sign of illness thus far.

Vilnius was the second U.S. Diplomatic mission, after Peru, to discover traces of the disease.