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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Got a Suspicious Letter? Here's What to Do

When RenTV employees received an envelope leaking white powder, they knew exactly what to do. They asked their correspondent who had just done a report on biological warfare what to do.

"I knew that the most important thing to do was not taste, sniff the substance or stick my nose into the envelope," the correspondent, Alexander Kudakayev, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Kudakayev carefully carried the envelope with the powder, which he said looked like salt, to a guard's post and started making calls to various Moscow emergency services.

The envelope, which did not have a return address, was postmarked Nizhny Novgorod and addressed to RenTV's "Neschastny Sluchai," comedy show.

It is unclear what the powder was, but the station's staff believe the letter a hoax.

Many countries, including Russia, are on alert and carefully checking their mail after anthrax was blamed for the deaths of at least three Americans, two of whom were postal workers, in recent weeks.

Over the past 24 hours alone, 16 anthrax scares were reported in Moscow after people received mail with powdery white substances, said Lyudmila Skvortsova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow department of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

RenTV staff had a person in the know to turn to when they got their suspicious letter Monday. But what should the rest of us do?

Skvortsova said the first numbers worried Muscovites should call are those of the police (Tel. 02) and rescue services (Tel. 995-9999). Police are charged with guarding the location until rescue workers arrive. Rescue workers examine suspicious substances on the spot. If necessary, they call State Health Inspectorate officials to take the substances away for analysis.

Although Kudakayev at RenTV had just done an anthrax report, he acknowledged that he had not been sure whom to call about the letter.

"We called everyone, the police, the health inspectorate, the FSB and rescuers, but when they arrived we figured out that calling the police alone would have been enough," Kudakayev said.

Skvortsova cautioned against opening suspicious-looking envelopes -- those that appear to contain a powder, come from unknown senders, have no return address or appear too heavy.

She said such mail should be placed, unopened, in several plastic bags and handed to the police or rescue workers.

If such mail has been opened, the recipient should avoid turning on air conditioning or other forms of ventilation in the room, she said.

Alexander Kots, a correspondent at Komsomolskaya Pravda, said it took rescue workers and epidemic specialists almost two hours to arrive last week after the newspaper received a package from an unknown sender in Austria containing a bottle filled with liquid.

"There was no panic in the office since we greeted the situation with a certain skepticism but, of course, we did not try to open the bottle," Kots said.

He said the authorities have not yet told the newspaper what kind of substance was found in the bottle.

Meanwhile, Moscow-based doctors said Wednesday that they are taking extra precautions to be ready to treat anthrax, even though the disease is common in Russia.

Dr. Gennady Sayenko, director at the American Medical Center, said that his clinic's doctors have received special training on how to handle a patient suspected of having come in contact with anthrax.

"All our doctors have a certain wariness, but anthrax is a familiar infection here," Sayenko said.

He said Muscovites who suspect that they have come in contact with anthrax should see a general practitioner. He advised against taking antibiotics to prevent the disease before a diagnosis is confirmed.

There are three kinds of anthrax -- cutaneous, which is easily treatable, and the more fatal inhalable and intestinal variants. Cutaneous shows up as a rash usually within seven days of contact, according to the American Public Health Association. The rash is followed by a lesion that in several weeks develops into a black scab.

Inhalable and intestinal anthrax result in a person showing flu-like symptoms -- fever, malaise and mild cough or chest pain -- that could gradually turn into a high fever, shock and then death.

Dr. Thierry Monnet, a general practitioner with the European Medical Center, said that if a person thought to have come in contact with anthrax shows flu-like symptoms, he should immediately be hospitalized for further tests.

"When the case is doubtful, it is better to do more than less," Monnet said.