When letters laced with anthrax-inducing spores were sent out seven years ago, U.S. Postal Service workers found themselves on the front lines of the attack. In Washington, D.C., alone, four workers at a mail-processing center developed inhalation anthrax, and two died. Federal investigators ended up testing 36 postal facilities in the D.C. area (including one where the two postal workers died), finding spores at 15 of them.

In case of another bioterrorist attack, the feds want to protect citizens with the help of letter carriers. Toward that end Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Health and Human Services Secretary Leavitt this week announced that during this type of emergency they will give kits to mail carriers (containing small quantities of the antibiotic doxycycline for use by them and other members of their households during an anthrax emergency) if they volunteer to deliver the same kits to potential victims on their delivery routes.

The thinking here is to protect Postal Service workers as well as their communities in  much the same way that parents are urged by airlines to put on their oxygen masks before putting them on their kids in the case of an emergency. Letter carriers would be accompanied by police officers on their rounds. The Washington Post reports that the plan "has the full support of the Postal Service and its unions."

"In an anthrax attack," Leavitt said in a statement, "time is of the essence in preventing illness and death by getting antibiotics to those who may have been exposed."

Unbeknownst to most people, HHS and the Postal Service have already tested this  proposal in Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle and plan additional trials next year in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Philadelphia, 50 carriers, each accompanied by a city police officer, reached 55,000 households in less than eight hours, according to the Post. The Food and Drug Administration now has to approve distribution of doxycycline for this purpose. The federal government has enough anthrax antibiotics in the Strategic National Stockpile to treat 40 million people for 60 days, the Post notes.

Since 2004, HHS's Cities Readiness Initiative (CRI) has launched programs to prepare 72 major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas to effectively respond to a large-scale bioterrorist attack by dispensing antibiotics to their entire identified population within 48 hours of the decision to do so. That same year, President Bush passed the Project Bioshield Act, which authorizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to spend up to $5.6 billion over 10 years to increase its stockpile of antibioweapons medicines, including drugs that the FDA has not yet approved as safe and effective.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto)