Scientists at St. Louis University are currently testing a vaccine for a disease that has been wiped out from the United States for decades. A vaccine for smallpox eradicated the potentially disfiguring and fatal virus but there are now fears bio-terrorism could bring it back.
Health officials say smallpox may have disappeared as a naturally occurring disease, but live samples of it still exist and could be used as a weapon. Federal agents want to make sure the U.S. is prepared for such an event.
"Small pox has been eliminated and no one is making smallpox vaccine so there is only a small amount of existing stock," says Dr. Sharon Frey, of St. Louis University.
The current supply of the vaccine is estimated at seven to 15 million doses. Doctors in St. Louis are diluting it to see if it can be stretched
"If you could get away with a 1 in 10 dilution of the existing vaccine then you might be able to vaccinate 70 to 100 million people," says John La Montagne, of the National Institutes of Health. He says that the U.S. would be in serious trouble if the vaccine was not available during a small pox epidemic.
Smallpox is one of the most contagious diseases ever recorded and health officials say the majority of Americans are no longer immune to it. The disease spreads by direct contact and through the air. (Only those with rashes are contagious.) Symptoms begin about 7-10 days after contact and include fever, aching pains, and severe rash. Thirty percent of those struck with the illness die.
There are plans to make a new vaccine, but in the meantime, health officials say diluting the current supply of the smallpox vaccine could best protect Americans from an old enemy that is now posing a new threat.
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