Federal policy has failed to prepare nation for possibility of bioterrorism

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms a case of smallpox in a Midwest city. Minutes later, officials declare that the country is under a terrorist smallpox attack. Panicked families swamp hospital emergency rooms nationwide.

The federal government makes immediate plans to inoculate 3.5 million people, but most of the emergency-response teams, including most emergency-room doctors, have not been vaccinated for the virus. Many do not show up for work, stymieing attempts to isolate the outbreak and adding to the growing death toll.

This scenario of unpreparedness is not fanciful, according to Michael H. LeRoy, a professor of industrial relations and of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It reflects "a disturbing consensus among medical and national security experts" that, three years after the 9-11 attacks, federal policy has failed to prepare the nation for the possibility of bioterrorism through the deliberate spread of the variola (smallpox) virus.

Smallpox is highly contagious and kills about 30 percent of those infected. A scourge throughout most of human history, the virus in its natural state was eradicated in the United States by 1950. Smallpox vaccinations for the general public were ended in 1972.

"Why then so much alarm among experts?" LeRoy asked in a forthcoming article in the Emory Law Journal. One reason is that the virus, known to be stored in both a U.S. and former Soviet Union lab, could be weaponized in an aerosol form and released into a city block or large crowd.

"It spreads easily by normal human interaction," LeRoy said. Although the federal government does have large quantities of smallpox vaccine to inoculate the public, the virus could spread widely and rapidly among an unprotected population before those infected are diagnosed and put in isolation wards.

"After incubating for seven to 17 days, the first symptoms of smallp

Contact: Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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