Health officials ready to combat smallpox

Monday, September 30, 2002

The war on terrorism is introducing fears to young Americans that they've never had to contemplate.

Some of those fears are from things they are seeing: images of airplanes crashing into buildings, wild-eyed men with bombs in their shoes and government buildings emptied except for people in hazardous material suits cleaning up anthrax.

Others are horrors that a nation must anticipate when fighting such an evil, unorthodox enemy. Those include the unleashing of disease on innocent civilians.

Smallpox was eradicated globally in 1980 after years of public education and vaccination, but vials of it exist in laboratories and private stashes, some of them in hostile nations. Homeland-security officials view it as a possible weapon.

But health-care workers in the United States say they are prepared for smallpox on every level, and Americans should take comfort in that knowledge.

Smallpox is to be taken seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site explains it as follows:

The smallpox virus lives only in humans, passed from those showing symptoms to others who stand within six feet of them for a prolonged period of time.

During an incubation period of seven to 17 days, victims feel fine. After that, there are flu-like symptoms of fever, exhaustion, severe back pain and sometimes vomiting.

After the fever drops, a rash develops in the nose and mouth and spreads across the body. If the victim survives, little bumps fill with opaque fluid, scar over and then fall off, leaving pitted scars.

Now the good news: Cape Girardeau County health officials are ready to vaccinate all 60,000 county residents within five days. This time frame is important, because the vaccine, a form of cowpox that makes the recipient immune to smallpox, is much less effective five days after exposure to the disease.

Pam Walker, director of Missouri's Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism, said 3 million New Yorkers were vaccinated in five days in the late 1970s to contain an outbreak.

The CDC outlined last week a plan to provide mass vaccinations in case of a bioterrorism attack. There is enough vaccine available for everyone who would want it.

If a case of smallpox were found here, vaccine would be shipped from one of 10 secret CDC locations. A national emergency would be declared, even if it were only one case, and the media would be asked to get the word out.

The victim would be inoculated, along with any first responders who came into contact with him or her. The National Guard would be called out because this would undoubtedly be a case of terrorism. If necessary, vaccination stations -- to be selected later this month -- would be set up around the county.

The plan is to have public-information seminars and drills. Local health officials, including Cape Girardeau Public Health Center director Charlotte Craig, said they are aware of the plan, glad to have it and are ready for action.

Should we live in fear of bioterrorism? No. But it's good to know those charged with protecting us are doing everything they can.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: