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WHO Keeping Smallpox Virus Amid Fears of Terrorism - 2002-01-17

Officials of the World Health Organization are delaying the destruction of the world's remaining stocks of smallpox virus, originally scheduled for this year. Smallpox has again caught world attention because of fears it could be used by terrorists.

The executive board of the World Health Organization has accepted the recommendation by the head of the organization, Gro Harlem Bruntland, and scientific experts. They have said that remaining stocks of the smallpox virus must be available for research to find more effective vaccines against the disease.

Iain Simpson of the World Health Organization told VOA that the organization is pleased with the decision.

"The proviso is that the research program should be completed as quickly as possible, which is what the director general is recommending and that a proposed new date for the virus stocks should be set once the research and outcomes of the research allow everyone to agree essentially on when the destruction should take place," he said.

Mr. Simpson said the WHO has asked for a report to be prepared in two to three-years on progress made on vaccine research. He said smallpox research is being carried out at two laboratories storing the virus, one in Russia and the other in the United States.

"Those are the two locations to which stocks of the smallpox virus were transferred after eradication was certified in 1980. These have been the only two official repositories of this smallpox virus ever since," he said.

Smallpox is highly contagious and results in death in about 30 percent of reported cases. It is spread by droplets contained in an infected person's breath. But vaccination is very effective, if done within four days of exposure to the virus.

Following the recent terrorist attacks in the United States, many countries are concerned that improved smallpox vaccines should be developed.