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HARTFORD, Connecticut - A 94-year-old woman from a rural Connecticut town has become the fifth person in the United States to die from inhalation anthrax, rekindling fears of the potential germ warfare agent.

Ottilie Lundgren, who lived alone in the rural town of Oxford, died overnight (NZ time) five days after she was admitted to Griffin Hospital in nearby Derby, Connecticut.

The latest case of inhalation anthrax, the first in rural America, could revive fears of bioterrorism following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

"It's very scary," said Lundgren's neighbour Jodi McCue. "You would never have expected Oxford or a 94-year-old woman who stays at home all the time to ever have something like this happen.

"With terrorism and things that have happened lately, you expect New York to be a target. But Oxford?" she said. "I can't explain it and I'm very scared."

Officials cannot explain it either. Connecticut Governor John Rowland called the case an "anomaly."

"It came as a surprise to us because the patient does not have any of the risk factors," said Dr Howard Quentzel, head of infectious diseases at Griffin Hospital.

As hospital officials announced Lundgren's death, a woman brought a suspicious envelope she feared might contain anthrax to the hospital's emergency room, town officials said. The envelope was sent to the state health department for testing and the hospital's emergency room was closed briefly.

Since early October, four people have died and 13 others have been infected with anthrax, a livestock disease that can be used as a germ warfare agent.

Investigators have still not determined who is behind the attacks. But Attorney General John Ashcroft has indicated that authorities are leaning toward a domestic source.

Rowland said state troopers working with the FBI and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention were examining Lundgren's home trying to find the source of the deadly bacteria.

"They're trying to trace the whereabouts of this woman over the last several weeks," he said. "Granted, at her age, she did not travel a great deal. So that's why the suspicions lead directly to the mail. Some sort of cross contamination."

All of those infected so far have been associated with the mail, the media or Capitol Hill, except for a New York hospital worker who died on October 31.

Rowland said the postal employee who delivers Lundgren's mail had been treated with antibiotics and Jon Steele, head of the US Postal Service's northeast region, said all 1500 postal workers at Connecticut's two primary distribution centres were also being offered treatment.

Rowland said authorities had checked the woman's local post office as late as November 11 and had found no problems there.

"Now we begin to believe that something possibly could have happened after the 11th. But we still have no evidence it's from the mail. It's a mystery to us but the FBI and the CDC are going to continue to work on it," he said.

Lundgren, a widow whose husband died in 1977, lives alone in the farming community of Oxford. She was admitted to Griffin hospital in Derby last Friday with symptoms corresponding to pneumonia.

Doctors said that within hours of her arrival she was treated with antibiotics.

"It's hard to believe that going to the beauty salon or whatever other trips she has made could have infected her. We will continue to look at the mail issue and see if there is any connection," the governor said.

- REUTERS

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