News Stories

Old Smallpox Shots No Longer Work

If you had a smallpox vaccination as a child and think you?re still protected, it?s not true. Almost everyone vaccinated before smallpox was eradicated in the mid-1970s has now lost their immunity.

621 microbiologists in Maryland received fresh vaccinations between 1994 and 2001 to protect them in their work. Before they had the shots, only about 40 of them, or just six per cent, were still immune from their earlier vaccinations. "The study is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one since eradication which tries to look at the durability of immunity," says Michael Sauri, director of the Occupational Medicine Clinic in Maryland. "It's showing us that after 20 years immunity is not going to be there."

In the U.S., about 60 per cent of the population has had a smallpox vaccination. Most of these people are now just as susceptible to smallpox as the 120 million born since the government halted vaccinations in 1972. "It adds to the argument that you can't count on any protection we thought we had," says Bill Bicknell of Boston University, a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. He thinks there should be mass vaccinations, in case terrorists try smallpox next.

Bicknell thinks outbreaks would be much easier to contain if almost everyone is vaccinated. "I'm not saying you just go straight in and vaccinate the population - you'd do it steadily in stages," he says. Healthcare workers would be first, followed by volunteers who are screened to see if they have a healthy immune system. Figures from the last mass vaccination in 1968 suggests at least 180 people would die of complications from the vaccination, which is a high price to pay for protection against an attack that may never happen.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta believes mass vaccination is unnecessary and it can deal with an outbreak through "ring vaccination" of people in the affected zone, plus their contacts. Its contingency plans for dealing with a smallpox outbreak, which will be reviewed this month, assume that no one is immune to the disease.

In Britain, where smallpox vaccination stopped in 1980, the Department of Health is taking the same approach. "We won't be relying on any current immunity of the population," says a spokesman.

Nevertheless, Harold Margolis, the CDC's chief adviser on smallpox preparedness, remains convinced that there are higher levels of immunity in the general population than the study suggests. "We don't know a lot about the determinants of long-term immunity," he says. Previous studies earlier this century in England and in the US suggested that immunity could last 50 years or more. A 1990 Israeli study showed that antibodies against the virus last for decades. Margolis says, "It won't protect you against infection, but it might protect you from death."

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Much of the Pentagon?s supply of anthrax vaccine, originally intended exclusively for military personnel, will be reserved for civilian use, according to senior Pentagon official David Chu. Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, says that while details remain to be worked out, the Pentagon does not expect to return to its original goal of vaccinating all 2.4 million members of the armed forces against anthrax. Initially the vaccine will be given only to those troops most at risk, such as those who work in laboratories where anthrax spores are handled and special operations troops.

Some military personnel believe the vaccine causes health problems, and hundreds have been forced to leave the armed forces after refusing to take it. The government insists the vaccine is safe.

The Pentagon was forced to scale back the vaccination program, which started in 1998, after factory violations by the nation's sole manufacturer of anthrax vaccine. Those problems have been corrected and in January the Food and Drug Administration allowed BioPort in Lansing, Michigan, to resume production and to release the 500,000 doses it had already made.

"The events of last fall were really a wake-up call for the country about the possibility of biological agents being used as a weapon of mass destruction, and therefore this is no longer just a military personnel problem. This is also a national problem," says Chu. "While we are still debating the details, what I think you will see in the end is, we will set aside a major part of what vaccine is available to be sure that we can protect the civil population of the United States. I don't want to start any rumors here. We're not going to vaccinate the whole population."

Health officials have said there's no need for civilians to take the vaccine unless there is an attack. The Homeland Security Office is trying to figure out how much vaccine might be needed for police, firefighters, rescue squads and others who would respond first to any attack in America.

"?I don't think you're going to see any early return to just vaccinating everybody [in the military]," Chu says. "That's not a very prudent policy in these circumstances, because the first principle is we've got to protect the entire nation."

The Pentagon is working on developing a new anthrax vaccine that could be fully effective in fewer doses than the existing vaccine, which was developed decades ago.The Centers for Disease Control is studying whether sufficient protection against anthrax could be provided by giving the present vaccine in fewer doses. Results from the study could be available in a year.

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Scientists believe they have found a treatment for patients struck down with anthrax. Biochemists at the University of Texas have discovered antibodies which attack the toxin produced by the anthrax bacteria. The new antidote has yet to be tested in human patients, but has proved effective both on bacteria in laboratory dishes, and in anthrax-infected rats.

The anthrax toxin infiltrates and destroys a particular type of immune cell called a macrophage, preventing the body from fighting off the anthrax infection. One part of the anthrax binds to surface of the macrophage, while other parts of the toxin penetrate the cell. The new antibody targets the protein that binds the toxin to the macrophage. If it?s disabled, then the toxin's attack can?t succeed. The new antibody may be able to help patients after symptoms of anthrax have appeared, when antibiotics can no longer help.

We have to ask ourselves: Is the current decision not to vaccinate the entire military due to the fact that the U.S. has discovered that the anthrax terrorist was one of us--a member of our own government? There?s evidence he?s been identified, but so far we haven?t been told his identity and motives. Does Big Government and Big Business censor our news? Find out the truth from ?Into the Buzzsaw? by Kristina Borjesson, click here. This popular book has sold out across the country and is now being reprinted, so it won?t ship right away, but it?s well worth reserving a copy.

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