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Gupta: Isolated anthrax case extremely rare

(CNN) -- A Florida man diagnosed with anthrax is an "isolated case," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, and his illness is not linked to any threats of bioterrorism against the United States. JFK Medical Center spokeswoman told CNN on Friday morning that the 63-year-old man from Lantana, Florida, remains in critical condition.

CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke to CNN anchor Aaron Brown about anthrax.

BROWN: I've been in this line of work since I was 18 years old -- 30 years. I have never reported a case of anthrax in my career that I can remember. How rare is it, not just in this country, but anywhere?

GUPTA: Aaron, there's only been 18 cases of inhaled anthrax between 1900 and 1976, and not a single case before today of inhaled anthrax over the last 25 years.

I went to medical school here, I never saw a case. I think we glossed over it in textbooks. It's a very rare thing, and it took Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be able to make the diagnosis.

BROWN: And we're not just talking about rarity in the United States. We're talking about it being rare in anywhere in the world.

GUPTA: That's right, Aaron. We just don't have a lot of cases of anthrax, which is an important point, because there's not a lot to study. Most of what we know comes from a case in Russia in 1979, where 68 of 79 people died after an accidental anthrax outbreak. So there's not many cases.

Most of the cases are sporadic, come from people working with goat fur, for example. The spores from anthrax sometimes are in the goat fur itself. Or eating undercooked goat meat, but very rare. Very few cases, very little to study.

BROWN: And the implications of the rarity, because that's really where you were going there, it seems to me, is that doctors and scientists don't have a lot to work with -- fair enough?

GUPTA: That's right. I mean, you hear a lot, Aaron, about what's the best treatment is for anthrax. In order to really know that, you'd have to knowingly expose people to what is known to be a deadly bacteria. Obviously, no one wants to do that, so it's really hard to know what treatments are going to work. So it is rare, and that makes it harder to know.

BROWN: Explain again how this could happen -- for lack of a better word, benignly -- and what I mean by benignly in this case is that it wasn't a terrorist who spread the spores out there. How would one become infected with anthrax?

GUPTA: Well, I've talked to a few different doctors, infectious disease doctors today about this, who work most closely with infectious diseases such as anthrax. To answer directly, no one really knows for sure. People used to get it by working with livestock, such as goats.

The spores are very, very resistant to all sorts of different damages, so they can persist in soil for a long time. And sometimes, if soil is unearthed that has a lot of spores, it could unearth enough spores to actually cause an infection. But again, Aaron, it's just all really speculation. Nobody really knows. It's a very unusual case, and the answer, hopefully, will come out over the next few days.

BROWN: Well, we're all trying to balance something very carefully here. We want to be careful we don't make people more fearful than they already are. We're trying to get information out. At the same time, when you heard about this, this afternoon, I assume late this afternoon -- was your first impulse, 'oh, my goodness'?

GUPTA: You know, Aaron, two things were sort of going through my mind at that time. One is that yes, absolutely, 'oh my goodness.' You know, we've been talking about it, it's happening. Everything we've been talking about is happening.

Another part of me, Aaron, said, you know, we are so hyper-aware now. We're looking for it. Everybody is on the lookout for it. Maybe that's the reason we found it. In fact, there were cases of anthrax over the last 25 years that were sort of chalked up to unknowns -- they never really figured out what the problem was. Anthrax was so unusual, people didn't usually put it in their thoughts as a possibility of causing the infection.

Now everyone is thinking about it, and certainly when this man showed up with symptoms that could be anthrax, people immediately thought about it and sent the sample off to the CDC to have it confirmed.

So it could be sort of one of two things, there, Aaron. Both those things were sort of going through my mind.

BROWN: I hadn't thought of that at all, that perhaps there have been anthrax cases out there, they were just never diagnosed as such. Because otherwise, you have to be a great believer in coincidence.

GUPTA: Absolutely. Absolutely.


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