U.N. agency prepares for smallpox

Saturday, October 27, 2001

GENEVA -- More than 20 years after smallpox was officially eradicated, the World Health Organization said Friday it was preparing for possible new outbreaks of the disease as a direct result of terrorism.

"Should an outbreak of smallpox be detected in any country, this should be considered an international emergency," said WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Amid a spate of suspicious anthrax cases in the United States, Brundtland asked an independent committee to update the U.N. health agency's guidelines on how to deal with smallpox -- a highly infectious disease that kills nearly one-third of those infected.

The committee cautioned against mass smallpox vaccinations, concluding that the risks outweighed the benefits. It said vaccines should be given to people immediately at risk of exposure -- such as health and civil workers -- rather than to the population at large.

In the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has asked Congress for $509 million to pay for up to 250 million doses of smallpox vaccine by the end of next year and asked U.S. manufacturers to start production of the vaccine again.

David Heymann, head of WHO's communicable disease division, said it is up to individual countries to decide whether to stockpile vaccines. A WHO survey in 1997 found that 72 countries had a total of 90 million doses, but that most were old and their effectiveness could not be guaranteed.

He said WHO had 500,000 doses of smallpox vaccine at a warehouse in the Netherlands.

Smallpox used to kill 3 to 4 million people a year, and left millions more scarred and blind. It was declared eradicated in 1979 after a massive campaign spearheaded by WHO. The last known naturally occurring case was in 1977 in Somalia, and one person died in Britain the following year following a laboratory accident.

After the disease was eradicated, governments agreed to concentrate stocks of the live virus in two secure laboratories -- one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and one in Russia's Siberia region.

WHO had wanted the stocks to be destroyed by the end of last year, but the United States resisted, citing the need to keep stocks for vaccine research.

WHO teams have visited both facilities in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, and Heymann said there were no signs of any security breaches.

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