What became of smallpox?

A couple months back it seemed we were all doomed unless we:

A) Knew where our towel and duct tape were.

B) Were vaccinated against the impending smallpox plague.

I never understood this. No one has been infected since 1977, long before Al Qaeda. The only known living strains are in Fort Knox styled Freezer vaults in IIRC Atlanta and Moscow.
There has never been a public report of theft to my knowlege.
Terrorists are getting by with box cutters, and we need to focus and spend on this now long wiped out disease. In the prelude to war, some even suggested we needed to protect ourselves from the Iraqi threat of smallpox. But even the GWB Admin never went there. It was just implied through hacks. In the past few days we have had praire dogs carrying the unlinked monkeypox. But where is the former urgency for vaccination?

from http://cdc.gov
Smallpox outbreaks have occurred from time to time for thousands of years, but the disease is now eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. After the disease was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer necessary for prevention.

Where Smallpox Comes From
Smallpox is caused by the variola virus that emerged in human populations thousands of years ago. Except for laboratory stockpiles, the variola virus has been eliminated. However, in the aftermath of the events of September and October, 2001, there is heightened concern that the variola virus might be used as an agent of bioterrorism. For this reason, the U.S. government is taking precautions for dealing with a smallpox outbreak.

What happened to the urgency: all vaccines have a certain sickness/fatality rate. This isn’t a big deal if the disease is still infecting people; a vaccine with a .001% rate of complications is better than catching a disease with a 30% fatality rate. However, because smallpox is no longer present in the human population, reintroducing the vaccine would cause a certain number of deaths (one or two per million estimated, according to MSNBC) with no benefit unless the smallpox virus is reintroduced into the human population. Health workers are being immunized (25,000 so far, again according to MSNBC), but at this time the risk of smallpox for the general population does not seem to be significant enough to take the risk of death, blindness, brain inflammation, and scarring in those inoculated (see above link).

In regards to why the issue was brought up at all: bioterrorism seems to be on everyone’s minds, especially since the whole anthrax thing. It seems unlikely that smallpox would be stolen and used as a weapon, but if it were then the effects would be disastrous. Prevention is relatively simple – distribute the vaccine, and the threat disappears. However, is the risk of a reintroduction of smallpox into the human population great enough to justify the medical complications and deaths that mass inoculation would cause? A lot of people were saying yes (a position that is rather newsworthy), but a lot of people are also saying no (which is less newsworthy, since it’s been true for a while).

Officially, yes. But plenty of laboratories all over the world had strains of the virus. Though officially all countries accepted to destroy them, there’s no absolute proof that they did so. It was extremely easy to just keep some samples…just in case…(not even necessarily with the vague intent to use them as bio-weapon, but possibly out of genuine concern for the future). So, there might be such samples in many other places.

Those are the only OFFICIAL stores … but it’s believed that there may be many more worldwide. And any stores in the former USSR are troubling, b/c economic conditions there are so much more unstable these days–meaning that some scientist or lab tech might be tempted to sell out a vial of smallpox to a foreign bidder.

The split-personality when it comes to vaccination is due to conflicting problems-- on the one hand, the vaccine is by no means subtle and safe, and can cause severe illness or death all on its own; on the other hand, hardly anyone in the world has immunity these days.

So here’s the equation:

  • vaccinate everybody, and guarantee that several thousand previously healthy Americans will suffer blindness, brain damage, disfiguring scars, and death–all for a disease that no longer exists and may never strike

  • skip vaccination, and, if smallpox does re-emerge expect 1/3 of those infected to die. Remember what happened when the Native Americans met the Europeans? Granted, we have better outbreak containment methods now, but basically every nuclear family within that outbreak area can expect to lose at least one member.
    So why is there no big push now? I think that Hippocrates’ “First, do no harm,” maxim is winning out at the moment. The administration is hoping to smack down any terrorists before they get around to acquiring smallpox. A gamble, but probably a better move politically than forcing vaccinations and causing thousands of crippling injuries and deaths.