WASHINGTON - A deadly bacteria listed among bioterrorism agents was detected in the US capital last month during a mass protest against the Iraq war.
District of Columbia Health Director Doctor Gregg Pane told WTOP Radio late Saturday that biological agent monitors on the National Mall, an esplanade in downtown Washington, gave positive readings for a small amount of tularemia on September 24 and 25.
Demonstrators gather outside the White House on September 24. A deadly bacteria listed among bioterrorism agents was detected in the US capital last month during a mass protest against the Iraq war. (AFP/File/Andrew Councill)
The sensors are operated by the Department of Homeland Security, but officials were not notified of the potential hazard until Friday, according to Pane.
"We've stepped up our surveillance and have notified doctors in the area about what to look for," Pane told the radio station.
He urged people who were at the Mall last weekend and who have been experiencing symptoms of pneumonia to immediately seek medical help, but added that there was no evidence that anyone had been affected by the bacteria.
First Lady Laura Bush was among those visiting the affected area at the time.
Tularemia, which is caused by the bacterium francisella tularensis, can occur naturally and is usually found in animals, especially rodents, rabbits and hares, according to federal health officials.
Symptoms include sudden fever, headaches, diarrhea, joint pain, cough and progressive weakness.
But the disease can be fatal if it is not treated with the right antibiotics, officials said.
Bacteria casing tularemia was very infectious, with between 10 and 50 micro-organisms usually enough to bring down an adult.
Although francisella tularensis could be isolated and grown in a laboratory, manufacturing an effective aerosol weapon would require considerable sophistication.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that national security officials believe the bacteria was probably not intentionally spread.
"There is no known nexus to terror or criminal behavior. We believe this to be environmental," the paper quoted Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, as saying.
But federal health officials remain on alert for outbreaks of the disease far away from Washington because of the numbers of visitors to the capital last weekend.
Thousands of opponents of the war in Iraq from all around the country converged on the National Mall on September 24.
Organizers put the number of participants at more than 300,000, while police said, unofficially, the protesters probably numbered a little over 100,000.
The same day the Mall hosted the 2005 National Book Festival, a massive book signing extravaganza which was hosted by First Lady Bush.
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