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Continued: Forgotten vials of smallpox found in US storage room; unclear whether virus is dead or alive

  • Article by: MIKE STOBBE , Associated Press
  • Last update: July 8, 2014 - 6:36 PM

Dr. Donald "D.A." Henderson, who led the WHO smallpox-eradication effort and is now a professor at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh, said it is highly unlikely more such stashes will be discovered. But he conceded "things were pretty casual" in the 1950s.

Decades ago, he recalled, "I came back from many a trip carrying specimens, and I just put them in the refrigerator until I could get them to a laboratory. My wife didn't appreciate that."

Smallpox was one of the most lethal diseases in history. For centuries, it killed about one-third of the people it infected, and left most survivors with deep scars on their faces from the pus-filled lesions.

The last known case was in Britain in 1978, when a university photographer who worked above a lab handling smallpox died after being accidentally exposed to it through the ventilation system.

Global vaccination campaigns finally brought smallpox under control. After it was declared eradicated, all known remaining samples of live virus were stored at a CDC lab in Atlanta and at a Russian lab in Novosibirsk, Siberia.

The labs take extreme precautions. Scientists must undergo fingerprint or retinal scans to get inside, they wear full-body suits including gloves and goggles, and they shower with strong disinfectant before leaving the labs.

There has long been debate over whether to destroy the stockpile.

Many scientists argue that any remaining samples pose a threat and that the deadly virus should be wiped off the planet altogether. Others contend the samples are needed for research on better treatments and vaccines.

At its recent annual meeting in May, WHO put off a decision again.

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  • FILE - This 1975 electronmicrograph from the Centers for Disease Control shows the smallpox virus. Government officials say workers cleaning a storage room at the National Institute of Health's campus in Maryland made a startling discovery last week -- decades-old vials of smallpox forgotten in a cardboard box.

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