Smallpox may be in the biologic hands of North Korea
A recent posting by the Global Security Newswire caught my eye. The headline reads something about North Korea and expanded WMD production. Normally this would get a "so what else is new" response from me but, a quick scan of the piece kept my mouse from clicking away. According to the October 27 article, South Korea claims...
"The military authorities understand that among the 13 types of fungus body of biological agents that North Korea currently has, five types -- including anthrax bacterium, botulinum, and smallpox -- can actually be used as weapons."Excuse me, did you say smallpox? I was led to believe that smallpox samples resided in only to repositories on Earth. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes this to be the case as well and since 1986 the has been arguing about the destruction of these stockpiles of Smallpox. Destruction of these virus reserves would mean the removal of the treat of this virus on our planet. Smallpox virus samples were due for destruction but received a stay of execution over the summer of 2011. (learn more on Smallpox stay of execution click here)
Does North Korea (or any other nation) actually has smallpox virus? Can it be or has it been weaponized? South Korea seems to think so and has undertaken an unprecedented bio-preparedness initiative. Good for them. The bad news is that, once Smallpox is let out of the freezer, it will not stay in Korea. One case of Smallpox any place on Earth will ignite a global health crisis. A crisis we are not ready to face. As we saw during the H1N1/Swine Flu episode, our health care system may not be "there" yet when it comes to being ready for a major biologic event.
In the United States we stopped routine vaccination against Smallpox in the 1970's and immunity of those vaccinated prior to that is unclear. There have been some promising data suggesting those vaccinated will still have protection but nothing conclusive. Those born after we stopped vaccination would have no immunity. (click here for more on Smallpox vaccine) Despite the vaccine and the virus, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your workforce. (Be bio-event ready click here)
There are several things to remember about Smallpox as a bio weapon, chief among them is the estimate that one person with the disease can infect about 20 others. To that we should mention that Smallpox has an approximate fatality rate of 30% and is spread by aerosol transmission. (read my 5 points to remember click here)
A good place to start your refresher class on Smallpox is with a review of biologic tabletop exercises such as Dark Winter and Atlantic Storm. (Click here for more on DW/AS)