Region warned over smallpox threat

MIDDLE East governments have been urged to prepare for a possible new outbreak of the smallpox virus. The Global Vaccinology International Forum (GVIF) in Dubai last week saw health specialists call for safeguards against the potential use of the fast-spreading disease as a biological weapon.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  March 13, 2005

MIDDLE East governments have been urged to prepare for a possible new outbreak of the smallpox virus. The Global Vaccinology International Forum (GVIF) in Dubai last week saw health specialists call for safeguards against the potential use of the fast-spreading disease as a biological weapon. Key among their recommendations was the adoption of national vaccine policies within governments’ overall health programmes. No Middle East state is among the seven countries worldwide that currently have sufficient stocks of anti-smallpox vaccines to protect their entire populations. Global vaccinations against the virus ended after naturally occurring smallpox was eradicated in 1980, but some states are suspected to have manufactured it since as part of their biological warfare programmes. There are also concerns that their resources and expertise may have spread to other countries and become accessible to terrorist groups, the forum heard. Bio-defence consultant, Dr. Jill Dekker-Bellamy, warned that the possible spread of artificially produced smallpox had placed the global community at risk. She challenged conventional policies that rely on containment and called for pre-event vaccination in all countries. “The current policies used by the international community highlight the inadequacies of our current understanding of the use of smallpox,” she said. Former director of the Smallpox Eradication Programme, J. Michael Lane, also pointed out that, although most of the Middle East had successfully eradicated the disease by 1967, it had been imported into certain countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1972. He said that this proved that the disease remained a threat. With current vaccine stockpiles only sufficient to protect some 10% of the world’s population, others pointed out that the problem remains global, and is especially acute in poorer nations. “The Middle East would be very unprepared for an outbreak, but it’s not just a Middle East problem; it’s a worldwide problem,” said Mick Garstang, director of marketing for biotech firm, Acambis. “Obviously governments have to look at other infectious diseases and for less well-off nations, smallpox would not be at the top of their priority list. There are real diseases out there doing a lot of damage,” he added. Officially, only two stocks of smallpox have been kept since the disease’s eradication; in the US and Russia. However, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Biosecurity, many tons of the virus were secretly produced by the former Soviet Union, and there is concern that other countries may now possess it. As smallpox vaccinations stopped in 1980, it is estimated that 75% of the world’s population is also now susceptible.

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