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Anthrax fears send Americans to the Web

People are flocking to government Web sites for information on anthrax after the string of related terrorist threats, a study says.

People flocked to government Web sites last week for reliable information on anthrax after a string of related terrorist threats to news operations and government officials, according to a survey released Friday.

Traffic to the Web site for the Centers for Disease Control surged by more than 118 percent during the week of Oct. 7, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a Web audience measurement company. The Web site drew about a half of a million visitors, and more than 250,000 looked up pages containing information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of anthrax.

As of midday Friday, the CDC site was inaccessible, possibly because of an influx of visitors.

"The Web is dynamic and reflective of people's emotions," said Allen Weiner, vice president and principal analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. "In a case like this, being able to go to a trusted source is invaluable."

The rise in traffic not only serves as a barometer of people's emotions in recent weeks but also highlights the critical role the Internet has played during a time of national crisis. After last month's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, concerned Americans flooded the Net to communicate with loved ones, read up-to-date news on the attacks, and donate time and money through sites such as the American Red Cross. In recent weeks, after several news outlets and government leaders received "snail mail" containing anthrax, organizations worried about handling mail have turned to e-mail as a way to continue a dialogue with customers and associates.

As daily news unfolds about the war on Afghanistan, people are rushing to get information from government-sponsored sources. The official site for the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice were big draws last week. FBI site traffic spiked by 518 percent to 908,000 unique visitors, compared with 147,000 surfers the week before, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. A majority of the site's visitors read Web pages for information on "Most Wanted" listed terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, who is suspected as the leader of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

"The Internet is filled with urban legend, and over time it's going to be increasingly important to have a number of reliable places to go for information," Weiner said. "People have an outburst, where they will go to these Web sites, but then it dissipates."