World Health Body Rules Out Mass Smallpox Jabs
By Richard Waddington
GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday it remained opposed to mass inoculations for smallpox despite fears the virus could be used as a weapon of germ warfare.
Smallpox, once among the world's most lethal diseases, was eradicated over 20 years ago, but the recent anthrax attacks in the United States have raised concerns it could reappear.
However, the vaccine itself can have serious side effects and poses a greater health risk while there are no reported cases of smallpox worldwide, the WHO said.
An adverse reaction to the vaccine can kill one person in a million but there has been no incidence of smallpox since 1978.
``The risk of adverse effects is sufficiently high that mass vaccination is not warranted if there is no real risk of exposure,'' the WHO said in a statement.
The United Nations (news - web sites) body said it asked a committee of experts last week to review its policy guidelines and they had recommended no change. Only those at direct risk of contracting the disease, which used to be fatal in some 30% of cases, should be inoculated, the WHO said.
Smallpox is caused by the Variola major virus and its symptoms are fever, headache and widespread blisters. It is on a list of 11 diseases, including anthrax, that the WHO has warned could be used in a biological weapons attack.
So far three people have died and at least 11 others have been infected in the United States by anthrax delivered through the mail. US officials have said there could be a link between the attacks and last month's suicide hijackings in New York and Washington in which some 5,000 people are thought to have died.
Unlike anthrax, smallpox is highly contagious.
Another argument against mass inoculation is that the smallpox vaccine can be administered after the disease has been contracted, provided it is detected quickly, WHO head of communicable diseases David Heymann said.
The incubation period for smallpox is seven to 14 days and the vaccine is effective if given within four days of infection.
Most people over the age of 30 will already be protected because countries did not end inoculation until the 1970s.
``I think we can be confident public health systems would pick up the disease very rapidly,'' Heymann added.
The WHO estimates governments have a stockpile of some 90 million doses of smallpox vaccine but it is not known how much would still be usable. The vaccine is no longer made, but the United States and other governments have announced plans to seek fresh production.
Although the virus has been eradicated as a disease, there are still two high-security research facilities--one in the United States and another in Russia--where it is maintained. There have been reports that Iraq and North Korea (news - web sites) could also have samples.
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