A Pox on Smallpox Virus

September 06, 1993

Biodiversity is a hot topic in scientific circles. No one knows just how many species of plant and animal life inhabit the Earth. But with the disappearance of rain forests and other native habitats, many people are alarmed at the rate at which species are vanishing.

Scientists worry about diminishing biodiversity because nature is often the source of cures for killer diseases. For instance, just as the virus that causes AIDS sprang from nature, there is always the possibility that some plant or animal will hold the key ++ to a cure -- if the species doesn't disappear before scientists discover its usefulness.

Now comes a new twist in the biodiversity debate, a plan for the deliberate extinction of the smallpox virus. After a successful global campaign to eradicate the disease -- an effort directed by Baltimore's Dr. Donald A. Henderson -- the World Health Organization decided in 1990 that the remaining supplies of the smallpox virus should be destroyed no later than the end of this year.

If any culprit deserves a death sentence, this virus qualifies. Since it claimed the life of Pharaoh Ramses V in 1157 B.C., smallpox has killed millions of people, often altering the course of history. Millions of native Americans died, having no resistance to a plague imported by Europeans.

The remaining supplies of the virus are now kept under security in Moscow and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The last two cases of smallpox occurred in Britain in 1978 when the virus escaped from a laboratory at Birmingham University, killing one of the victims. The prospects of a similar accident or even deliberate terrorism lend urgency to the plan to destroy the virus.

But some scientists are questioning the timing of the extermination, suggesting that the virus may still have much to teach us about viruses in general. Researchers are well on the way toward completing a molecular map of the virus. That achievement, together with cloned fragments of the virus, would answer the scientific objections to destroying the virus. That leaves timing as the major issue.

On this point, Dr. Henderson has a worthy suggestion: Why not postpone the deadline and use the occasion as an educational event? The first vaccination for any disease occurred in May of 1796, when Edward Jenner successfully inoculated a boy, James Phipps, against smallpox. Waiting another 2 1/2 years until May of NTC could answer concerns about timing while also giving public health officials an opportunity to showcase the important role vaccinations -- and prevention in general -- play in public health.

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