Biological Weapons: Smallpox as a Weapon
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Smallpox or Variola Major virus is a disease that has been documented as highly communicable and lethal. It has been attributed to several incidences of human fatality of genocide proportions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia classifies it as a “Category A” agent because of its potential threat to the public (CDC, 2012). The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the variola major as a high morbidity and high mortality disease with the largest known genome virus (WHO, 2012).
Several ancient records identify the variola major virus as the fatal disease agent behind numerous plagues. Specifically, some of them refer to the Great Plague of Athens in 430 BC,, as well as to the fatal plague unknowingly spread by the Roman army to Italy around 165 AD. It was assumed that the endemic disease was brought from the basin of Ganges River. Similarly, it was fixed to have appeared in Huang Ho and Yangtze, China around 2nd century AD. It was found to have been brought by Europeans to North Africa during the Moorish conquest and Crusades around 12th century AD, and to the East and West Africa by Indian traders and Muslim Caravaners and pilgrims crossing the Sahara Desert (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012).
The Persian physician Rhazes was able to document early medical notes on symptoms of the disease back in 900 AD, but it was Bishop Marius of Avicentum, Switzerland that gave the disease its Latin term “variola” defined as “pustule”.It was only around the 16th century that the term “smallpox” was attributed to the disease in order to distinguish it from the then dominant plague syphilis known as the “great pox” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2012; Aberth, 2010). Koplow (2004) states that these records though existent are still being considered as human interpretations to fossil records. Furthermore, there was no specific evidence found in regard to the disease pattern and evolution due to the lack of standardized medical lexicon at that time. So ancient writings are often nothing else but non-scientific reports of symptoms (Koplow, 2004).
The first recorded utilization of the smallpox virus as a weapon of destruction was documented in 1763, during the French and Indian War in North America, when Colonel Henry Bouquet and General Jeffery Amherst communicated through a letter the use of blankets and handkerchiefs contaminated with “small pox pus and scabs” from British soldiers and its distribution among the Native American settlers within the area (Koplow, 2004; Lindler et al, 2005).
Koplow (2004) and the CDC (2012) mention four characteristics of smallpox, which include: a) close proximity to the infected either through inhalation of pathogens or direct physical contact with soiled clothing or the diseased person; b) there is an acute manifestation which could be asymptomatic; c) those who contracted the disease and survived develop lifelong immunity; d) there is no known animal reservoir of the disease, which affects humans exclusively. Koplow (2004) states that the recorded death tolls during the Spanish colonization conquest of America that killed two to fifteen million Aztecs within a few months were related to smallpox. Koplow (2004), further states that during the eighteenth century the variola major virus has been recorded to eradicate populations amounting to an average of 400,000 individuals annually in Europe alone.
During World War II the Japanese Military Unit 731 and the former Soviet Union both used biological weapons as a military strategy (Lindler et al, 2005). During that period, the former Soviet Union had around 50, 000 scientists and technicians researching and perfecting a program on the use of biological weapons in aerosol form, which could be attached to missile warheads (Flight, 2011;Lindler et al, 2005).
The campaign for the eradication of the variola major virus started around January of 1967 when around 43 countries experienced an estimate of 10 million cases of infection and 2 million deaths (Henderson, 2009). The World Health Organization (WHO) around 1980, through the leadership of Donald A. Henderson, recommended the eradication of all laboratory stored vials of the variola virus apart from those officially sanctioned laboratories in the Centers for Disease Control and Preparations laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, USA and the one stored in the Institute of Virus Preparations in Moscow, Russia (CDC, 2012). However, there is still a great possibility of virus manipulation and experimentation of this variola virus by scientists that have been laid-off and offered huge sums of money by terrorists (Flight, 2011). Presumably, there are still other small nations operating under the radar of the WHO that might still have access to frozen cadavers or secretly store strains of the virus.
Nevertheless, around 2002, years after the agreement between the nations was signed regarding the total eradication of the variola virus, evidence emerged showing that the former Soviet Union did not honor the treaty and continued with their biological weapons development program. It was Dr. Ken Alibek (former First Deputy Director of Biopreparat) that provided information regarding the masquerade of the biological weapons laboratory as a pharmaceutical company. The latter was said to be conducting a continuous experiment and genetic manipulation of virulent strains of variola virus (Global Security, 2012; Flight, 2011; Hogan et al, 2012). Flight (2011) states, based on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, North Korea, Iraq, and Russia have potentials to use biological weapons. As for other countries like China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Yugoslavia, they may have inadvertently retained some specimens of the virus.
In 2002, the US President George W. Bush launched the National Smallpox Pre-Event Vaccination Program which is a two vaccination program against the smallpox virus to protect its military personnel and civilian population (Baciu, 2005; CDC, 2012; Chapman et al, 2008). Baciu (2005) further explains that there is an imminent threat of the smallpox virus as a biological weapon because current health practitioners are unfamiliar with the strain. To make the matters worse, the most recent document on its virility is about 30 years old. The first known vaccine developed and licensed by the New York Board of Health Strain called “Dyrax” (Global Security, 2012) was last used around 1980 when the virus was declared eradicated (Global Security, 2012; Baciu,2005 ).
Today, there are insufficient supplies of the vaccine against smallpox (Hogan et al, 2012), thus, creating a problem for any nations government against sudden terrorist attack. In addition, Hogan et al (2012) states that the last routine vaccination on the US population was in 1989 with an estimated ten year immunity; therefore, subjecting the US population to vulnerability against a bio-terrorism attack, since 42% of its population are under 30 years old and have never received any prior vaccination. Thus, in 2007 the United States Food and Drug Administration developed a new vaccine - the ACAM2000 - that can be easily manufactured in vast quantities in the event of a national emergency (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012) in Atlanta, Georgia, states that there is no proven treatment for smallpox and that the vaccine is a preventive measure best administered prior to exposure or within 3 days of exposure to the deadly disease. Furthermore, the CDC (2012) explains that vaccination administered within 4 to 7 days of exposure can decrease the severity of the disease but will not protect those individuals who have already developed the rashes.
The current health control program of the US government employs health teams and the media to track down and isolate cases in case of a potential outbreak (CDC, 2012). However, it is every person’s responsibility to monitor their health and seek immediate medical attention if signs and symptoms are observed. Every community must be vigilant in monitoring suspicious activities within their vicinity and promptly report such incidences to proper authorities. As a precautionary measure, it is best to get vaccinated against smallpox as early as possible, especially for those who are 30 years old and younger.