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WHO seeks more smallpox vaccines

LYON, France -- The World Health Organization is seeking to expand its 2.5 million dose supply of smallpox vaccines as part of precautions against a biological terrorism attack, a senior official said yesterday.

''We need stockpiles of vaccines. We need stockpiles of those essential medications," Brad Kay, coordinator of the WHO's division on preparedness for accidental and deliberate epidemics, said on the sidelines of an Interpol conference on bioterrorism.

Smallpox is one of six highly lethal ''Category A" diseases that public health specialists believe could be used as biological weapons. Others include anthrax, tularemia, botulism, or viruses such as Ebola.

Kay said that the WHO is involved in ''much discussion about greatly expanding" its access to smallpox vaccines through a so-called virtual stockpile, which entails keeping tabs on stocks around the world that could be called on if the need arises.

In the event of an emergency, Kay said: ''The small amount that the WHO has is not going to go far."

Kay also stressed the importance of hospitals, scientists, and public health agencies pooling information on an international level, which could help manage both a natural outbreak or a terrorist attack.

Today, the only smallpox vaccine available is unsafe for people with weakened immune systems, and can even seriously harm some healthy people, because it is made with a live virus called vaccinia that can spread through the body.

Smallpox is the only major disease to be successfully eradicated under a WHO-sponsored vaccination program. The last known case was in 1978.

The disease plagued humans for centuries, and it is believed to have killed more people than all wars and epidemics combined. Death typically follows massive hemorrhaging.

At the Interpol conference, officials warned that the world's police are ill-equipped to handle an ''urgent" bioterrorism threat.

Interpol laid out measures to fill gaps in the ability of police to combat bioterrorism, pledging to work with scientists and health specialists and take the role of global coordinator.

Closing the two-day conference, Interpol warned that terrorists intend to use biological or chemical weapons and that no nation is fully equipped to handle a large-scale attack on its own.

To track the threat, Interpol plans to set up a bioterrorism resource center to pool up-to-date information from the myriad agencies and police forces around the world.

With data from scientists, health agencies, and police forces, it would serve as a bioterrorism clearinghouse and give law enforcement agencies a new tool in preventing or detecting bioterrorism, Interpol officials said.

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