In what is hailed as the greatest medical achievement of the 20th century, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in the 1970s, ending routine vaccinations.
Yet that monumental achievement — the first and so far only time human intervention wiped a disease from earth — makes people so vulnerable to a bioterrorism attack today.
Smallpox is a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus. The most common form kills one in three people and leaves many survivors scarred and some blind. A less common form, hemorrhagic smallpox, is nearly 100 percent lethal. Never having been vaccinated, most of the population have little or no immunity from the disease.
After its eradication in nature, the World Health Organization decided only two sites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a government lab in Moscow, would keep smallpox samples for research. The rest were to be destroyed.
Other nations were left on what amounted to an honor system, said Jonathan Tucker, author of “Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.” It would be easy to hide a vial of smallpox, Tucker said.
U.S. government officials and experts believe numerous countries, including Iraq and North Korea, kept unauthorized stores to develop into biological weapons.
Russia’s government violated WHO regulations in 1994 by secretly moving its authorized samples to a former biological weapons site in Siberia.
Plans to destroy the authorized stores during the 1990s were delayed repeatedly, and, last May, WHO decided to delay destruction indefinitely.