Smallpox and Bioterrorism; There Are Real Risks and Grave Consequences

Article excerpt

Byline: Dr. William Bicknell and Kenneth Bloem, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Iraq war is over, no WMD have yet been found and the administration's smallpox plan appears to be running out of steam. Instead of being well on the way to vaccinating up to 10 million civilian health, emergency and public safety workers as called for by President Bush, we are stalled at 37,608. Our message to the nation's health authorities: This is not the time to go wobbly on biodefense.

Bioterrorism is a real risk. Smallpox is easy to hide in any freezer and, whether or not WMD are found in Iraq, it is only one of a number of states on the list of suspects. Of all biological weapons, smallpox has the greatest potential for widespread harm. But the risk of death or serious harm to anyone from any form of terrorism is very low. Therefore, we should live our daily lives normally, not in fear, while government takes steps to reduce chances of terrorism and, when it occurs, to minimize consequences. Have we done this with smallpox? Not yet. There is vaccine for everyone, but we are ill-prepared to rapidly contain smallpox after a bioterrorist release. Monkeypox is a timely reminder that the unexpected can happen and take time to recognize.

As we conclude in a forthcoming Cato Institute briefing paper, the president's December 2002 vaccination plan is sound. The military is on track, with more than 450,000 vaccinated, no deaths, no lasting side effects and no harm to any immunocompromised persons. We do not believe that our government is vaccinating the military just to make a political statement. What's wrong on the civilian side?

Although CDC guidelines have recently improved, they continue to overstate the risk of vaccine side effects, and erroneously suggest that, after an attack, the techniques used decades ago to eradicate smallpox will work well today.

Here are the facts:

* Vaccinating healthy adults is low risk, about 1 death per 15 million. If you don't worry about driving to work or crossing a busy street, don't worry about getting vaccinated.

* Smallpox is infectious before there is a visible rash. Anyone infected by a terrorist will be infecting others before they know they have smallpox.

* If a person is vaccinated up to several days after being infected, disease is not prevented, nor is transmission to others. Illness is likely to be less severe and the risk of death reduced.

* There is little residual immunity in the U.S. population, and, for persons born after 1972, when routine vaccination stopped, no immunity.

* We cannot rely on the techniques used to eradicate smallpox 30 years ago, when immunity was high, people were less mobile and there was no malicious dissemination.

We must protect against the unlikely, but very serious, consequence of several highly motivated, well-trained terrorists traveling to different cites and infecting 50 to 150 people in each city. …