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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Terror fears spark smallpox research
An actress is made up to show the disfiguring effects of smallpox
Smallpox attack: "Nightmare scenario"
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has responded to concerns about bioterrorism by agreeing to postpone the destruction of the world's last remaining stocks of smallpox virus.

Two years ago, the WHO set 2002 as the deadline for getting rid of the virus, amid hopes that the killer disease - officially declared eradicated more than 20 years ago - would never return.

We regard the potential release of smallpox as a critical national security issue, not only for us but for the entire world

Kenneth Bernard
But the deaths of five people from anthrax in the US following the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington heightened fears tht extremists might resort to biological or chemical weapons.

The WHO now believes more research needs to be done into possible new smallpox vaccines and treatment before all smallpox stocks can be safely destroyed.

There are officially only two centres in the world which keep stocks of smallpox virus - the United States Centres for Disease Control and the Russian Vector laboratory.

Meeting at their annual assembly in Geneva, representatives of the WHO's 191 member states approved a recommendation to retain stocks of the smallpox virus.

Decontamination after suspected anthrax attack in the US in 2001
Fears have grown over possible biological attacks
No new date has been set for destroying the stocks.

US assistant surgeon-general Kenneth Bernard told the meeting that research was necessary because the events of 11 September had underscored the lengths to which terrorists were prepared to go.

"We regard the potential release of smallpox as a critical national security issue, not only for us but for the entire world," he said.

Medical success

Smallpox, once a feared disease that claimed millions of lives, kills about a third of its victims and leaves others hideously disfigured.

Its eradication was hailed as one of the world's greatest medical successes.

There is no effective treatment once somebody falls ill, but administering the vaccine in the days after exposure can prevent the disease developing.

However, vaccines cannot be given to people with weakened immune systems, including transplant recipients and people with HIV/Aids.

The WHO's decision comes at the end of a week when delegates discussed at length best way to respond to biological and chemical warfare.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Switzerland says there is clearly concern that public health systems are not fully equipped to cope with a deliberately spread infectious disease, and increased awareness and coordination is needed.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: The threat from bio-terrorism
29 Apr 02 | Health
Bio-attack 'could kill a million'
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