Israel: Health Ministry may manufacture smallpox vaccine : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Health Ministry may manufacture smallpox vaccine By Judy Siegel

JERUSALEM (October 12) - Health Ministry officials have "frequently and recently discussed" the possibility of beginning local manufacture or the import of smallpox vaccine, but they are waiting for the defense authorities to decide whether there is any possible danger to Israel of smallpox spread by biological warfare.

Ministry chief epidemiologist Dr. Paul Slater told The Jerusalem Post yesterday that no one in the world - including Israel - has been vaccinated against smallpox since 1981, when the World Health Organization decided the infectious disease had been wiped out. "The government was very happy to stop giving the vaccine," Slater said.

However, it is feared that terrorist groups, including Islamic fundamentalists, may have obtained supplies of the fatal virus. Slater said that only Israelis over the age of 20 who have been vaccinated have some protection against smallpox, whose infection can be fatal. Adults who have been vaccinated before would not die from smallpox infection, but they could take ill. Middle-aged and elderly people probably are most protected, because they have received several booster shots.

Slater said the vaccine - grown in eggs and made from a virus that is a "cousin" of the lethal smallpox virus - has not been manufactured for many years. It would take about six months to import or manufacture it before it became available for use, he said.

"Our lab that made vaccine in Jerusalem's Jaffa Road doesn't exist, while the virology lab that could do it is at Sheba Hospital."

A US company has begun producing smallpox vaccine by the tens of millions, and it could make five or six million more for Israelis, "but this decision depends on the defense authorities, who must decide if it's a realistic threat."

The vaccine itself is "dirt cheap," and stockpiles can be frozen for many years. But the vaccine should not be given to adults lightly, as it can cause side effects. "However, if there were a real risk of smallpox as a biological weapon, these side effects would not be a consideration and the authorities would decide that everybody gets it."

The defense authorities declined to comment on whether it was discussing smallpox vaccination and if so, whether it had or had not stockpiled vaccine.

Danny Shoham, from the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said the protective steps taken for biological warfare are much more classified than against chemical weapons.

"Biological attacks are much more enduring and therefore a more strategic weapon. Smallpox is highly contagious, antibiotics are not useful and the immunity is vanishing," said Shoham, an expert in chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East.

But Shoham believes that terrorists, who have shown they have no limits when attacking the United States, would be deterred from releasing biological attacks like smallpox on Israel and that reduces the local threat.

"If smallpox is released it may cause a horrible pandemic. It is terrorism's doomsday weapon. If Tel Aviv would be contaminated it would certainly pass on to the Palestinians and spread out to the neighboring countries," Shoham said. "[Terrorists] would most likely be aware of this point and that makes its use less probable."

Meanwhile, in light of the reports from the US regarding three cases of infection by the anthrax virus in Florida and the possibility that it might be a biological terrorist attack, the ministry is preparing to issue professional directives to the medical community (physicians and lab technicians in hospitals and community health clinics). The ministry said yesterday that it is monitoring reports from professionals on the incidents and is in contact with US authorities.

The ministry stressed that anthrax is not transmitted from person to person, that it is known to medical science, and is both preventable and treatable. As part of the preparations that began several years ago, "the appropriate medicines to deal with the disease are to be found in Israel."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 12, 2001

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