Official says smallpox is biggest threat to Cape area

Saturday, December 1, 2001

Smallpox could be the biggest bioterrorism threat facing Cape Girardeau, Missouri's top security official said Friday.

Tim Daniel, homeland security special adviser to Gov. Bob Holden, said terrorists could wreak havoc around the world with the deadly smallpox virus.

The world doesn't have the vaccine on hand to prevent an outbreak and "essentially stands unarmed against smallpox," he told 80 Southeast Missouri police, fire, health and county officials at a meeting in Cape Girardeau.

Smallpox killed as many as 500 million people worldwide in the first half of the 20th century before vaccinations eliminated the disease, he said. But the former Soviet Union reportedly produced 20,000 tons of weaponized smallpox, some of which may not have been destroyed and could be deadly in the hands of terrorists, Daniel said.

Building a supply of vaccine and getting people vaccinated would take time. "We don't have a vaccine for everyone," he said.

Faced with an outbreak, authorities would have to minimize human contact by canceling flights and public events, and ordering people to stay home, Daniel said.

Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, said public health agencies already cope with shortages of flu vaccine. Craig's agency only recently received its supply of influenza vaccine. Craig said the distribution of all vaccines needs to be improved. "Someone is going to have to decide who gets the vaccine," she said.

Daniel said 20,000 people died last year from natural occurring influenza. That alone, he said, emphasizes why the nation and Missouri need to strengthen public health services.

Quick response, he said, is needed in combating infectious diseases.

"What we saw in Washington, D.C., with the anthrax is a case study of how not to do it," he said.

Daniel said federal, state and local agencies need to improve communication and information sharing.

Daniel chairs a 33-member security panel in Missouri organized in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The panel will make recommendations to the governor and state lawmakers in January on how Missouri can best guard against and respond to terrorist attacks.

Friday's meeting at the Show Me Center was the fourth of six sessions scheduled around the state to gather input from local emergency officials and others about security concerns.

Besides Daniel, state officials at the meeting included Jerry Uhlmann, director of the State Emergency Management Agency, and representatives of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the National Guard.

Tricia Schlechte, deputy director of the state health department, said her agency has investigated 112 suspected anthrax cases in the past two months including the Kansas City, Mo., post office case. In none of the cases has anyone been infected with anthrax, she said.

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