It has been one month since the first anthrax case was confirmed in the United States, and public health still have not identified the source of what President Bush called "a second wave of terrorist attacks." Now, federal health investigators are preparing for the possibility of another type of biological threat: smallpox.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has vaccinated about 140 federal health investigators against smallpox. This would allow them to be dispatched quickly to the site of a suspected smallpox outbreak.
Unlike anthrax, smallpox is easily spread from one person to another. The precaution is being taken even though the disease was technically eradicated 20 years ago.
Appearing on the CBS television program Face the Nation, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci said the country must be prepared for the use of smallpox as a bio-terrorism weapon. "What [the CDC] are doing is classic, appropriate public health approach," he said. "You vaccinate what we call the first responders, the people who are going to have to go out into the field, do the examination, do the isolation, do the quarantine. You have got to get them vaccinated. So, the CDC is appropriately doing that now just in case there is a smallpox attack."
Dr. Fauci said officials are also in the process of building up the nation's stores of smallpox vaccine. That way millions of Americans could be protected against smallpox, if necessary.
Also appearing on the program, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy called for the creation of a "strategic pharmaceutical reserve" to protect each American from biological attacks. "We ought to set precise times, dates, resources to make sure that we are going to be able to deal not only with the smallpox and anthrax, but for all the other likely bio-terrorist threats," he said.
To date, inhalation anthrax has killed four people. And officials are not any closer to identifying the source of the deadly spores.
Health authorities believe the latest victim of the less lethal skin form of anthrax disease was infected through the mail. But they do not know how a woman who died of inhalation anthrax last week contracted the illness.
Results of the latest testing revealed trace amounts of anthrax in the mailroom of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington. But officials believe the contamination was due to contact with a letter that passed through a Washington post office where two employees died.