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WHO to Vote on Keeping Smallpox Stocks - 2002-05-14

The World Health Organization's General Assembly will be voting this week on whether to keep remaining stocks of the live smallpox virus for further research. Concerns about bioterrorism involving smallpox make the decision critical.

The world's health ministers will decide what to do with remaining stocks of the smallpox virus - now that the disease is virtually eradicated.

The World Health Organization, WHO, is recommending that stocks of the live virus should not be destroyed but used to develop new drugs and vaccines to combat any occurrence of the disease.

U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, who is attending the meeting in Geneva, said he endorses the WHO smallpox recommendation. "The resolution, as it stands right now, is what we want without any changes. We do not want any time limits on the termination of the stockpiles because we do not know what is going to happen. We want the stockpiles that we have to be able to continue to do research on and develop new vaccines," Mr. Thompson said.

The U.S. official said that by the end of this year, the United States will have 360 million doses of the smallpox vaccine to protect its citizens.

Mr. Thompson said the best way to fight bioterrorism is for countries to work together. The United States, Mexico, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan are now looking at ways to develop, purchase, and stockpile vaccines. They are also working together to share laboratories and scientists in collaborative research projects.

Mr. Thompson said the United States has set aside $900 million for the development of new vaccines for smallpox, anthrax, the plague and other diseases.

The head of WHO'S research on communicable diseases, David Heymann, said countries must be encouraged to strengthen their disease detection and response systems to deal with deliberate outbreaks resulting from bioterrorism.

"We are recommending to countries to begin to look at other issues of preparedness - such as the need to be prepared should there be a massive surge of patients due to a massive use of a biological agent. So we are working with countries to strengthen their public health systems, but in particular looking at their capacities to deal with enormous events which may not have been experienced before," Dr. Heymann said.

He said strong national public health systems will be able to handle both naturally-occurring infections, as well as those deliberately caused.