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Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox

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Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. By Jonathan B. Tucker. (Grove Press: 2002. Pg. 304.) ISBN: 0802139396

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 28, 2003

As little as a generation ago, the very mention of the disease Smallpox would send a shiver down the spines of those that heard the name. Although only a tiny virus, it has killed, maimed, and disfigured untold millions. Global efforts to eradicate Smallpox succeeded beyond anyone's imagination. As a result of an effective vaccine and mass inoculation, the World Health Organization declared, in 1980, that the disease had been officially eradicated. The eradication program began in 1796, when Dr. Edward Jenner inoculated James Phipps with Cowpox in order to give him immunity to the Smallpox virus. This vaccination regiment was successful and was the first of the Smallpox vaccines to be used.

Once Smallpox was officially eradicated, universal vaccination against the disease was halted. However, while the virus had been eliminated in the wild, stockpiles of the virus still existed in medical and research labs around the world, most notably in the United States and the Soviet Union. It is also probable that many other countries also retained stockpiles of the virus. To prevent the 'leak' of Smallpox from these stockpiles back into the general population, the World Health Assembly recommended that all remaining stockpiles of the disease be destroyed. To date, they have not.

In Scourge - The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox Jonathan B. Tucker provides a detailed analysis of the history, spread, and social impact that Smallpox has had on civilization. He also looks at how the disease was eradicated, and the threat posed by the remaining stockpiles. Smallpox has long been seen as an ideal 'weapon' and it is likely that the Soviets, and perhaps others, managed to weaponize the virus. It is also possible that terrorist groups have, or will, obtain supplies of Smallpox - either the standard 'run-of-the-mill' variety, or the weaponized form. In either case, if the disease was released upon an unvaccinated population, the result would be horrific! The possibility that a terrorist group might use Smallpox as a tactical or a strategic weapon has motivated many countries to begin to once again vaccinate emergency response people against the disease, so that at least this small core of people would be protected in case of an attack. This core would then be able to treat those affected, while also commencing a mass vaccination program of the general population.

The natural ferociousness of Smallpox has terrorized mankind throughout recorded history. Scourge provides the reader with a detail overview of the history of Smallpox, its eradication, the possibility that it might reappear and the horrific toll that such a reappearance might take. In the past Smallpox has been used militarily, and it has been used as a biological weapon, such as when the British gave American Indians blankets infected with the Smallpox virus. Its use as a potential bioterrorism weapon pales in comparison to how the disease was used in the past. Tucker, who is a biological and chemical weapons expert, succinctly delineates how Smallpox can and might be used as a bioweapon, and the steps that can be taken to prevent the proliferation of Smallpox as a weapon. Tucker also explores the difficulties that would be faced by anyone attempting to use Smallpox as a weapon.

Related Reviews:

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, by Elizabeth Anne Fenn.
A comprehensive overview of The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, and the impact it had on the American Revolutionary War and Native populations.

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad.
An in-depth look at America's secret biological warfare research and the current efforts underway to thwart a biological attack, and the threat posed by biological weapons, and bioterroism.

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