World News and Trends: Fears Delay Plans to Eradicate Smallpox

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Fears Delay Plans to Eradicate Smallpox

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Had all gone well, in June it would have been eradicated as scheduled had the United States and Russia destroyed their long-stored samples of the deadly virus.

However, fearing its possible use as a biological weapon by terrorists, the United States announced it would delay its planned destruction of the virus based on intelligence that the virus may have been secreted away in Iraq, North Korea and some areas of the former Soviet Union.

Over the last few decades smallpox has virtually disappeared, except for what were thought to be scattered samples kept for research. Scientists and physicians had hoped all traces of the disease could be eradicated and looked forward to the extinction of one of mankind's most deadly killers. But no one could guarantee that, had the United States and Russia destroyed their samples, it wouldn't reappear in the hands of terrorists or a rogue state.

Smallpox is believed to have taken more lives over the ages than any other infectious disease. Some scientists estimate that in this century alone smallpox claimed up to a half-billion lives, more than all other epidemics and wars put together. Historical accounts indicate the disease has been around as long as 3,000 years.

Should the virus be used in war or a terrorist action, the number of deaths could be staggering. Since most countries phased out vaccinations as the disease was driven into submission, billions of people have no resistance to the disease.

Some liken our situation to that of some American Indians who, having no natural resistance to the disease, were decimated when colonists and settlers inadvertently brought the virus with them as they came into contact with the American natives. In that sense, "we're all Indians," noted Elizabeth Fenn, a smallpox historian at George Washington University. "We're approaching 100 percent susceptibility" to the disease, she said.

Scientists have called for programs to develop a new vaccine to protect up to 100 million people vulnerable in the United States.

Jesus Christ predicted that "pestilence"—disease epidemics—would be a characteristic of the time of unprecedented worldwide turmoil leading up to His return (Source: The New York Times, Matthew 24:7, 21-22.)