Prepared for Pox | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.03.2003
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Prepared for Pox

A German federal research institute says the country is ready for a smallpox attack. Smallpox vaccines have been acquired to inoculate every man, woman and child in Germany.

Smallpox vaccination: Doctors and nurses first

Smallpox vaccination: Doctors and nurses first

Germany is well armed against a smallpox attack, says Dr Reinhard Kurth, president of the Robert Koch Institute, on Friday and announced that 50 million doses of smallpox vaccine have been stockpiled.

By the end of April Germany plans to have 70 million, in September the entire supply of 100 million doses will be in storage. "The vaccine is still stored centrally, and it's no secret that it's guarded by the German military," Kurth commented.

The risk of an attack with biological weapons is remote but not non-existent. Kurth, though, warns against alarmism, "We don't have any indications that Germany is in a particularly dangerous situation."

Precautions better than optimism

The oldest known smallpox vaccine dates back to 1721. The fight against the potentially lethal virus has been successful subsequently. In 1980 smallpox was declared eradicated.

Since people are no longer vaccinated against the virus, smallpox would confront a fully unprotected population if it were unleashed, according to Kurth. After such a long time earlier immunizations would not be effective against the virus either.

Taking precautions is better than optimism, Kurth warns.

Ambitious plans

In cooperation with the Robert Koch Institute, the federal states and local authorities, the German government has designed an ambitious emergency vaccination program. It foresees that the entire population will be immunized within four or five days of a smallpox attack. More than 3,300 vaccination stations across the country will immunize at least 5,000 people per day. Preparations, including training doctors in modern techniques of inoculation, have already been made. In an emergency doctors and nurses would have to be vaccinated first.

Doctors and nurses reluctant

"We are seeing a certain reluctance -- not just in Germany, but also in other European countries and the USA -- among medical personnel who don't want to be vaccinated due the side effects," Kurth acknowledges.

The smallpox vaccine is made from vaccinia, a virus related to smallpox and one of the most dangerous vaccines. While it often produces temporary fevers and sore, swollen arms, in a small number of cases vaccinia pox can scar, blind or even kill its victims.

There is an antidote to vaccinia pox though, while scientists have not yet developed one for smallpox. Inoculation is the only way to prevent smallpox, and side effects are the price. The smallpox vaccine wasn't developed further because there was no need and, consequently, no market for it, according to Kurth.

Excessive preparations

Microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi from Mainz thinks Kurth is mistaken when it comes to smallpox preparations. He doesn't believe that an attack with biological weapons on Germany will happen, and he says the expensive preparations are excessive. The scientist maintains that Iraq is incapable of orchestrating such an attack.

"Saddam Hussein can't produce the pox virus secretly on a large scale underground -- it has to be underground," Bhakdi says. "Bin Laden doesn't have it in the desert either. Producing the pox virus is not so commonplace, just as producing any virus is not commonplace."

Bhakdi says the danger to the U.S. or Israel is much greater than to Germany.

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