- The use of anthrax as a bioterrorist weapon is not nearly
as frightening as the threat of attacks using smallpox, said Dr Jim
of Northeastern University in Boston.
- "Anthrax is not easily transferred, so to develop
it as a weapon is difficult, and in most cases it responds quite well to
antibiotics," he said. "However, what I would be more wary of
- He said smallpox was contagious and there was no tested
treatment. "Even as we speak, some federal officials have reason to
believe that Iraq is developing it as a biological weapon."
- An attack using smallpox could create an international
emergency, according to an article in the journal Emerging Infectious
by Dr Tara O'Toole of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
- A theoretical attack on April 1 had, by mid-June, led
to 15,000 cases of smallpox and 2,000 deaths in America, while the disease
had spread to four foreign countries.
- In June of this year, another exercise, Dark Winter,
simulated the American reaction to the deliberate introduction of smallpox
in three states during the winter of 2002. It predicted three million cases
and one million deaths by the following February.
- Last month, the US Centres for Disease Control and
warned doctors to watch for unusual outbreaks of disease that could be
consistent with biological weapons.
- Smallpox was on a list of biological agents "of
highest concern", including plague, tularaemia, an acute infectious
disease of rodents transmitted by ticks or flies, and Lassa fever.
- The CDC told doctors to be vigilant in detecting unusual
age distributions of diseases, such as a chicken pox-like illness in
which might turn out to be smallpox.
- The same week, the Public Health Laboratory Service in
Britain also provided new information to doctors on smallpox. Stockpiles
of the smallpox virus are now scheduled for destruction on June 30 next
year after a vigorous debate among scientists.
- Some have long argued that smallpox specimens represent
a potential biological warfare weapon for terrorists, particularly given
the turmoil in the former Soviet Union.
- Others wanted a stay of execution. Smallpox would be
low on the terrorists' shopping list, given that there was an effective
vaccine, they argued. The cultures would also be of huge value if there
was a resurgence of the disease.
- Destroying the virus did not erase this threat, they
added. The fact that the genetic blueprint of several smallpox strains
had already been published provided the means for reconstructing it or
transferring part of it to a common-or-garden pox virus.
- Indeed, there is no telling whether a similar virus could
evolve at some time in the future from closely-related monkeypox. There
may even be other sources of the virus; for example, the corpse of a person
killed by smallpox and preserved in the Arctic permafrost.
- In the 18th century alone, the brick-shaped virus killed
around half a million people annually. When Europeans came to the Americas,
it wiped out half of the Native American population who lacked any trace
of natural immunity.
- Even in 1967 the disease was endemic in more than 40
countries, with 10 million cases. Overall, the virus has killed about a
billion people and mutilated millions more.
- However, in the late 18th century smallpox suffered its
first reverse. Edward Jenner showed a way to boost immunity by inoculation
with a close relative, the cowpox virus.
- Effective vaccination followed and the last person to
be naturally infected was a Somali cook who succumbed on Oct 26,
- Two years later, the world was officially declared free
of the scourge.
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