The threat that the smallpox virus could be used by terrorists as a biological weapon has become a cornerstone of modern angst. Now, a research team finds reason to assuage some of that anxiety: People vaccinated against smallpox decades ago retain significant antibody and immune-cell responses against the dangerous virus.
"We're finding long-term immunity," says Mark Slifka of Oregon Health and Science University in Beaverton. At last week's meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C., Slifka and his colleague Erika Hammarlund reported the results of their survey of more than 300 people who had received one or more smallpox vaccinations over the past 75 years.
After a global immunization campaign against smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s, the disease was declared eradicated in 1980, and vaccinations were stopped. Fearful of an attack with the smallpox virus, however, the U.S. government recently began immunizing soldiers and health-care workers who would be the first to respond to an outbreak. Because the vaccine can have serious side effects, a debate has erupted over whether to widely vaccinate the public after an outbreak or just immunize people in the area where the outbreak occurs, a strategy called ring vaccination (SN: 4/5/03, p. 218).
To inform that decision, researchers have developed computer models that predict how smallpox would spread given a range of factors. One of the biggest sources of uncertainty in such models has been whether people vaccinated decades ago remain immune. An online fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, for example, declares, "Smallpox vaccination provides high level immunity for 3 to 5 years and decreasing immunity thereafter. …