Test of Terror on the Day Smallpox Breaks Out

The Birmingham Post (England), February 22, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Test of Terror on the Day Smallpox Breaks Out


Here's the nightmare: Terrorists contaminate an auditorium with silent, odourless smallpox just before a political rally.

Soon, casualty departments see mysterious illnesses. By the time doctors diagnose smallpox, coughing patients are spreading the lethal virus around the globe.

This time it was a test run.

Doctors, hospital workers and US health leaders used that fictional scenario, set in Baltimore, to test how they would control disease if bioterrorists ever attack - debating step by step how to quarantine, shut down airports and control panic when vaccine runs out.

How did the trial run go?

"We blew it," said a grim Dr Michael Ascher, California's viral disease chief.

If an attack really had happened, it would have taken just three months for 15,000 Americans to catch smallpox, 4,500 to die and 14 countries to be re-infected with a disease thought wiped out decades ago.

"We would be irresponsible if we left this room and didn't remedy this," said Mr Jerome Hauer, New York City's emergency management director.

How can doctors prepare? The test-run offers clues.

The fictional scenario begins:

April 1. The FBI gets a tip that terrorists might release smallpox during the vice president's speech at a Baltimore college. The tip is too vague to warn health officials. Smallpox incubates for two weeks so no one has yet become sick.

April 12. A college student and electrician come to the emergency room with fever and other flu-like symptoms. Doctors suspect mild illness, maybe flu, and send them home.

April 13. 10am. Both patients are back, sicker and covered in a rash. Doctors now suspect adult chickenpox. The two are put in hospital.

6pm. An infectious disease specialist is puzzled. That rash doesn't really look like chickenpox, and it's popping up in places chickenpox normally doesn't afflict, like the soles of the feet. More testing suggests it might be smallpox.

8pm. Because smallpox is spread through the air, officials seal the hospital, telling visitors and staff they can't leave. They give no reasons. Frightened hospital visitors alert TV news crews, who report rumours of the dreaded Ebola virus.

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