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Smallpox: Advance Planning Underway

The anthrax scares have prompted concerns about an even more fearsome weapon of bioterrorism--smallpox. There hasn't been a case of smallpox since October of 1977, yet in recent days the government has begun vaccinating healthcare workers who would be the first line of defense against an outbreak of the deadly virus.

It's been nearly a quarter century since smallpox was wiped off the planet. But because its potential as a terrorist weapon is so frightening, the government is urgently trying to get ready. This past week, the Centers for Disease Control vaccinated 140 members of special teams to be deployed if a case highly contagious smallpox erupts. Disease experts applaud the move even while downplaying the possibility of an outbreak.

Anthony Fauci says, "You vaccinate what we call the first responders--the people that are going to have to go out into the field to do the examination, do the isolation, do the quarantine. You've got to get them vaccinated."

Routine vaccinations for smallpox ended in 1972, which means millions of Americans under 30 have no protection at all. And for those who did get the shots, the protection has probably worn off. A looming question now is whether mass inoculations are needed again.

Jonathan Tucker, a biological weapons expert, says, "It would only make sense to begin vaccinating the population again if the risk of terrorist use of this virus was assessed as very, very high. Which is not currently the case."

There is only an "emergency supply" in the US vaccine stockpile. Doses are being diluted in lab experiments to see if they'll be effective, but one lawmaker says that approach falls far short of what's needed.

Senator Edward Kennedy says, "We have the best researchers in the world and we ought to put them to the task to make sure that every American is going to be protected against every likely possible threat from bioterrorism."

Last year CDC officials ordered up 40 million doses of the smallpox vaccine to be delivered in 2004. Now they're demanding delivery late next year.

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