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Students Help Screen Postal Workers for Anthrax

Donna Young

On the final days of a pharmacy-management experiential rotation at Cooper Health System in Camden, New Jersey, the last thing Colleen Papadeas and Kruti Desai expected to do was participate in an anthrax screening operation.

"I couldn’t believe I was staring down at an anthrax log," Papadeas said.

On Oct. 31, the New Jersey Health Department had announced that a postal worker at the South Jersey Processing and Distribution Facility in Bellmawr was suspected of having cutaneous anthrax.

An FBI sample taken from the facility later tested positive.

On Nov. 1, Cooper’s pharmacy director, Jackie Sutton, asked Papadeas and Desai if they would like to participate in a screening operation the hospital was conducting at the Bellmawr facility.

"We jumped at the opportunity," said Papadeas. "This was my first experience doing something of this nature, and it gave me a great view of how important it is for people in health care to come together in a time like this. It was an unusual situation. But I looked at it as a real opportunity to learn."

Papadeas and Desai are in their final year of the Pharm.D. program at the University of the Sciences Philadelphia School of Pharmacy.

Desai said she and Papadeas counseled hundreds of postal workers that day about the possible adverse effects of doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, and amoxicillin—the anti-infectives that the Cooper physicians were prescribing to prevent anthrax infection.

"We would go over their medical history with them and see what the doctor had prescribed to see if it was the right drug," she said.

Desai said some of the postal workers were frightened by the anthrax situation.

"There were two or three that were really worried, and I saw one woman who was crying about it," she said. "Sometimes situations like this don’t affect you until you are there and you see it. It made me want to call home and tell my parents to not touch any mail."

Because the screening operation took place at the Bellmawr postal facility, albeit in a building separate from where the anthrax contamination was found, Papadeas said she had some concern for her own safety.

"Even though we knew it wasn’t contagious, there was still a real consideration involved. But it was the right thing to do to be there. Plus, I had a special interest since the Bellmawr post office is a mile and a half away from my home."

Papadeas said the pharmacists’ participation in the operation helped to "personalize" the treatment for the postal workers.

"They really listened to each word we told them about the antibiotics when we were counseling them," she said. "We could ask them questions. It was good that we were there."

Desai said a few of the postal workers had not told a Cooper physician about their allergy or asthma medications.

The labeling for ciprofloxacin, for example, advises against the drug's concurrent use with theophylline, an asthma medication.

"We were able to catch those people to make sure they had the right antibiotic," she said.

Desai said the experience gave her a unique preparation for her subsequent rotation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. She is participating in a survey project to help CDC determine how successful AIDS prevention programs have been for the Hispanic community in the United States.