Global Smallpox Defenses Remain Inconsistent

GENEVA — For the past two years U.S. lawmakers and health officials have worked feverishly to strengthen the nation against a terrorist attack using biological weapons, but global biological defenses are still plagued by inattention or underfunding, according to several health officials and experts at a Smallpox Biosecurity conference here yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 22).

“I think it honestly is a problem,” said Ricardo Wittek, a professor at the University of Lausanne who co-chaired this week’s conference. He told Global Security Newswire that he was “not too pessimistic” but “if there is an outbreak, it would become a world problem, and developing countries might not have the means,” to vaccinate their populations against smallpox.

Thailand has no plans to purchase additional vaccine and Thai officials will instead rely on small 20-year old stockpiles, according to Pilaipan Puthavathana, a microbiology professor at Bangkok’s Mahidol University.

“We think we are at moderate to low risk of an outbreak, and we have to think of cost effectiveness,” Puthavathana said.

During this year’s outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Thai biological defense efforts were curtailed completely, she added.

When Seoul National University professor Myoung-don Oh wanted to become the first South Korean volunteer to receive the vaccine, he was confronted by a lack of health care workers with smallpox experience and instead administered the inoculation himself. He then took it upon himself to recruit additional volunteers.

Even Belgium is only planning to purchase enough vaccine for 10 percent of its population, with plans to dilute the stocks or use targeted vaccinations if an outbreak occurs, according to experts here. In contrast, the United States is purchasing a dose of smallpox for every U.S. resident.

Health officials urged developing countries and the World Health Organization to consider the danger of a potential smallpox attack.

“A smallpox attack anywhere is a problem for everyone,” said D.A. Henderson, the principal science adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Wittek said he hoped that richer countries would turn their attention to developing nations’ biological defenses.

“It is in their interest,” he said.

October 23, 2003
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GENEVA — For the past two years U.S. lawmakers and health officials have worked feverishly to strengthen the nation against a terrorist attack using biological weapons, but global biological defenses are still plagued by inattention or underfunding, according to several health officials and experts at a Smallpox Biosecurity conference here yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 22).

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