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Bubonic Plague Samples Missing in Texas

January 15, 2003

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) _ Vials containing samples of lethal bubonic plague have disappeared from Texas Tech University, and the FBI was investigating, authorities said Wednesday.

A statement from the university said vials of bubonic plague, being used to improve treatment of plague victims, were reported missing to campus police on Tuesday.

Thirty-five vials were believed missing from the school’s Health Sciences Center, said Frank Morrison, a Lubbock city councilman, who told CNN he was briefed by emergency officials. There was no indication that a theft has occurred, Morrison said.

``I do not believe it is currently a weapons grade but it can be converted into a weapons grade,″ Morrison said.

City officials planned a news conference.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s Web site, quoting unidentified law enforcement sources, said the vials turned up missing several days earlier but wasn’t reported to police until Tuesday. Sixty investigators from various converged on the medical school campus, the newspaper said.

The school said the research was being conducted by Dr. Thomas Butler, chief of its infection disease division, who has been studying the plague for more than 25 years. It said there was no reason to believe the vials were stolen but officials thought it was ``prudent″ to get law enforcement involved because of current concerns about bioterrorism.

In Washington, FBI officials confirmed that they were contacted Tuesday night and dispatched agents to Lubbock to assist local authorities.

White House officials have been briefed on the plague reports, said spokesman Ari Fleischer. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also was investigating. No other specifics about the probe were immediately available.

Bubonic plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. People usually get it from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal.

The disease can be treated with antibiotics. Health officials say 10 to 20 people in the United States contract plague each year. About one in seven U.S. cases is fatal.

Plague outbreaks have killed about 200 million people in the past 1,500 years. The most infamous, Europe’s Black Death, started in 1347, killing 25 million people in Europe and 13 million in the Middle East and China within five years.

Plague _ along with anthrax, smallpox and a handful of other deadly agents _ is on a short watch list distributed by the federal government, which wants to make sure doctors and hospitals recognize a bioterror attack quickly.

But plague’s symptoms can be difficult to spot. The disease is characterized by swelling, weakness and fever, symptoms that can signal anything from flu to West Nile virus.

Bubonic plague is not contagious. But left untreated, it can transform into pneumonic plague, a more dangerous disease that can be spread from person to person.


On the Net:

CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/health/plague.htm

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