First the good news, then the bad news.
The good news. Thanks to a massive effort launched by the Bush administration, the United States finally has almost enough smallpox vaccine to inoculate every man, woman and child in the country.
"In June 2001, we had 12 million doses of smallpox vaccine for a population of 280 million," Randall Larsen, CEO of the non-profit Weapons of Mass Destruction Center, told Steve Sternberg of USA Today in a story published on May 25.
Now, Larsen told USA Today, the U S. national stockpile holds contains 300 million doses of standard smallpox vaccine. "In effect, we have eliminated smallpox from the category of weapons of mass destruction," at least in the U.S., Larsen told Sternberg.
Now the bad news – Nobody has been inoculated with the vaccine and they're not going to be unless it's too late. Yet smallpox spreads like wildfire through human breath. It is the most contagious and difficult to contain of all the horrific contagious diseases in history. Therefore the time to inoculate the American people against it is before any outbreak begins, not after the fact.
What’s that you said? Wasn’t smallpox eradicated from the earth more than 30 years ago? Well-- yes and no.
Smallpox is the greatest killer in human history. It depopulated the Americas nearly 500 years ago when it was introduced by the Spanish Conquistadores. It killed up to half a billion people (that's half a billion, not half a million) in the past century. Scientists estimate that as little as 100 years ago, one in every 12 children in the entire world died young because of smallpox.
A huge global health initiative primarily funded by those evil agents of economic imperialism, the great U.S. charitable foundations, did succeed in totally exterminating smallpox in the 1970s. However, the Soviet Union – that ever-flowing source of benign scientific and technological achievement – retained samples of the smallpox virus and they weren’t the only ones to do it.
Soviet scientists successfully grew and weaponized large quantities of the virus to create a potentially even greater deadly and disgusting menace than the atomic bomb. Several RS-20V Voyevoda – NATO designation SS-18 Satan – intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads were adapted so that their warheads consisted not of thermonuclear weapons but of aerosol-prepared smallpox viruses. Each SS-18 could reliably carry up to 10 MIRV warheads. When any or all of those warheads exploded over an American or European city, they would have spread smallpox far and wide.
Smallpox is terrifying for three reasons. First, it causes appalling scarring and disfigurement for life, even among its survivors Worse, even by the standards of contagious diseases, its victims suffer greatly before they die, as they usually do.
Second, smallpox cannot be cured. Like so many other virus born diseases, the course of the disease, once it is acquired, cannot be stopped. Its effects on the victims are truly horrific.
Third, and worst of all, smallpox is the most contagious deadly disease imaginable. Any reasonably organized government can quickly stop typhus and cholera, two of the other greatest killers in human history in their tracks.
Cholera is spread through contaminated water. Typhus, which destroyed the Grande Armée of Napoleon and devastated Russia during and after World War I, is spread by fleas in the scalp and skin and filthy clothes. Rigorous hygienic measures, widely applied, can stop it dead.
Even bubonic plague, the feared and legendary "Black Death," requires lots of rats to carry the fleas that spread it.
It was typical of the sorry state of science and reason in Medieval Europe that a terrified population blamed Jews and cats for spreading the plague. The Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of drinking water and the cats were accused of being familiars of witches casting the evil spells.
So after the 1348 Black Death pandemic, Jews and cats were both massacred on a genocidal scale. But since the Jewish communities were a source for the most educated and enlightened doctors and the cats naturally fed on the rat population and kept it under control, these “measures” only made things even worse.
Medical scientific research made these fearsome historical killers tameable. But nothing can tame smallpox except eradicating it, which was in fact done to the natural reservoirs of the disease around the world. For, as I mentioned earlier, smallpox is spread simply by the human breath. It is even more faster-spreading and communicable than the flu.
The medical technology to protect the human race from smallpox has actually been around a very long time, since 1796, to be exact. The famous English research Edward Jenner in one of the earliest classic research projects of modern medicine developed a generally safe and reliable method of inoculating human beings against it using derivatives of the similar but much milder cowpox disease.
Until less than 40 years, all U.S. schoolchildren, as well as those in almost all other industrial nations, were routinely inoculated against smallpox. But then the disease was eradicated and virtually all supplies of vaccines destroyed. It was an incredibly dangerous and stupid move.
Currently, U.S. intelligence analysts conservatively estimate that at least 700 illegal laboratories around the world are trying to grow the smallpox virus. Information on its DNA structure has even been naively posted by legitimate research institutions on the Internet. The FBI has worked hard to discourage that practice, but it has no legal powers to enforce compliance. There is no doubt that some jihadi groups have been working hard to either acquire some stocks of smallpox, or to create their own.
The only real defense for the American people – and any targeted nation – against this diabolical scourge is to mass-inoculate the entire population.
After 9/11, the Bush administration appeared to recognize this and with considerable publicity announced that it was ordering large new supplies of the vaccine and it did. But incredibly, both the Bush and the Obama administrations lacked the guts to inoculate their country's population.
Bush policymakers decreed that to avoid panic, lawsuits and a small number of adverse reactions to the vaccine, even when enough of it was produced, it would only be distributed and given to people in areas after an initial outbreak had occurred. Obama, passive-passive as usual, has accepted that criminally stupid ruling.
This combination of complacency, ignorance and criminal incompetence is hard to beat. Modern mass communications, jet aircraft, trade and the universal availability of automobiles in the United States mean that once an outbreak occurs it would be quite simply impossible to contain it.
Sweeping quarantine regulations backed by the most stringent martial law regulations would be required.
However, the sense of urgency and the will to apply these measures simply does not yet exist in the federal government or in state legislators and bureaucracies around the United States.
Our old friends of the ACLU and every Harvard Law School graduate in creation would be up in arms whining about the abuse of civil rights if people were forced to be in vaccinated against their will.
By the time the decision-makers woke up, it would be too late and millions would be dying in agony with their faces monstrously scared and the skin literally disintegrating off their bodies.
Is the Obama administration proving any more responsible, efficient, competent or concerned about the smallpox threat than its Bush-era predecessors were? The answer of course is, “No.” A new federal report details the continuing failure to prepare adequate defenses against smallpox and other dangers of biological war – more on that in my next Fox Forum post.
Martin Sieff is a former senior correspondent for The Washington Times and Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. He is the author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East" (Regnery 2008). He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.
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