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Women's Health

The Ghost of Smallpox Past

Despite its being dead for 25 Years, the specter of a smallpox pestilence -- via terrorism -- haunts the public.
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Devastating Disease continued...

Here's the most important fact. For about four days after exposure to smallpox, a person can still prevent disease by getting vaccinated. So if there is an exposure, public health officials have at least a week to find people who are exposed and to vaccinate them. They have at least several more days to find their close contacts and vaccinate them, too.

"Conventional methods of containment -- vaccination of contacts and isolation of the ill -- work reasonably well," Bozzette says. "Smallpox is a devastating disease. But it is not an instant killer. It spreads slowly. An epidemic would build over months, and there wouldn't' be any cases at all right after first exposure. It is scary, but it doesn't move like wildfire."

Dangerous But Not Easy to Get

If this doesn't sound like the smallpox you've come to fear, listen to Thomas Mack, MD, MPH, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Mack led teams that traced some 100 smallpox outbreaks as part of the world war to eradicate the disease. He uses the same words as Bozzette: Smallpox doesn't spread like wildfire.

"People greatly exaggerate the danger to the population not directly affected," Mack tells WebMD. "It is more like a grenade than like a dirty bomb. Once the initial wave of infections is over, mopping up is relatively simple. It is hard work, but having a couple of weeks between infection and symptoms makes it possible to respond. I won't say we can protect the people hit in an initial attack. But even if the virus did get a lot of people, we could still contain it. And it would be over in a matter of months."

Here's the bottom line. If you're worried about smallpox, talk to your doctor about it. Find out about your risk from the vaccine. If you feel it's worth it for your family's peace of mind and safety, learn how to get the vaccine. In some areas you can sign up for clinical trials of a new, possibly safer vaccine. And if you're willing to fill out the paperwork, you can get unlicensed vaccine next year or wait to get licensed vaccine sometime in 2004.

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