News Stories

Anthrax Victims Slow to Recover

Lena H. Sun reports in the Washington Post that six months after inhaling anthrax spores, several of the mail workers who survived the deadly disease have yet to make a full recovery and are experiencing serious fatigue and memory loss.

In interviews with five of the six survivors of inhalational anthrax, four reported frequent exhaustion. Only one person, a 74-year-old Florida man, has returned to work. But others say they need daily naps after the slightest exertion.

"The question is, why aren't these people back to normal?" says Mark Galbraith, an infectious disease specialist in Virginia who is treating one of the victims. This shows how little is known by the medical community about this illness.

Eleven Americans, from Florida to Connecticut, contracted the inhaled form of anthrax from terrorist mailings to politicians and media outlets. Five died, including two postal workers in Washington, D.C. Six were treated and survived.

"I'm just so tired," says David Hose, 59, of Winchester, Va., who was released from the hospital in November after 16 days of intensive treatment. Hose worked at the State Department's diplomatic mail facility in Sterling, where he inhaled anthrax spores from a letter addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy that was accidentally routed to the facility. He is trying to regain his strength through physical therapy but spends most of his time watching television because he has so little energy.

Bradley Perkins, the top anthrax expert at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, says that the CDC is aware of "complaints and concerns" among some of the inhalation survivors. "We're just now approaching the kind of time period where one would normally expect a full recovery," he says. But "a number of survivors have not returned to their normal daily activities.? He says the CDC is concerned about their lack of recovery and is ?actively discussing? whether to conduct a formal study of their symptoms.

Until the outbreak last year, inhalational anthrax was almost always fatal, so little is known about the experience of survivors and whether the infection has long-term effects. The other few dozen cases recorded in the United States in the last half-century were mostly contracted by workers exposed to contaminated animal hides.

Victims have also noticed problems with memory and concentration. Perkins says memory loss and fatigue could be due to the fact that anthrax produces toxins, "and some could have impact on nerve tissues." It?s also possible that survivors are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Part of the stress could be caused by the fact that no one has been arrested in the attacks.

Leroy Richmond, 57, one of two Brentwood postal workers to survive, discovered that he?s not the only survivor having memory problems. Norma Wallace, 57, who worked in a facility in Hamilton Township, N.J., and was hospitalized with inhalational anthrax for 18 days, told him that she often loses her train of thought in the middle of a conversation.Richmond's wife, Susan, sees the same symptom in her husband. "We know he's getting old," she says, "but it's not normal for him, in the middle of a conversation, to say he can't remember what the questions were."

Until he talked to Wallace, Richmond says he was reluctant to acknowledge that he was having memory trouble. "I was trying to be brave and strong," he says. He?s now undergoing a series of memory tests.

The only survivor who appears to have made a full recovery is Ernesto Blanco, 74, who returned in February to his job handling mail for American Media Inc. at its new office building in Boca Raton, Fla. "I feel good," Blanco says. "I remember everything. I feel 100 percent fine. Honest to God, you won't believe me, but I almost feel better than before."

The five other survivors are still recovering at home, receiving worker's compensation. Richmond says he wants to go back to his job as soon as possible. On his doctor's orders, he takes a walk each morning, but he needs to stop halfway through at a nearby gas station to rest. After returning home, "I'm so tired I have to take a nap," he says.

Postal worker Wallace says she has to do her chores in 20-minute segments so she can rest. Like some of the other survivors, she also has joint pain in her shoulders, ankles and hips that was not present before the illness. She doesn't know when she will be able to go back to work, but she has resumed her correspondence classes for a bachelor's degree in literature because she thinks it might help her memory. "That's one reason why I stick with school," she says. "It forces me to focus and try to remember."

Wallace's co-worker Jyotsna Patel also has chronic fatigue, joint pain and memory loss. Before she got sick, she said, "my joints never hurt, and I never sit down for one minute -- I'm so active." This spring, her doctor told her, "Hey, you also have the same symptoms like the other patients,' " recalled her husband, Ramesh Patel. When she first returned home, her husband said, she would often wake up in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares.

"The frustration is she is not getting better at the rate she should be," says Patel?s husband. But what makes him "really mad," he says, is that "they still haven't been able to find out who did this."

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