- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

While public-health officials continue to debate whether the threat of smallpox is real enough to vaccinate against, some administration officials appear to have made up their minds, and are acting accordingly.

Two recent revelations argue that they also appear to be acting appropriately. The first was a CIA intelligence assessment, which adduced that four nations Russia, North Korea, Iraq and France almost certainly possess secret stocks of the smallpox virus. A second, unrelated disclosure revealed that Osama bin Laden dedicated money and personnel resources to procuring stocks of numerous biological and chemical agents, including smallpox.

There's little reason to believe that bin Laden has the virus yet. However, it's foolish to think that there won't come a day when either bin Laden or another of similar purpose acquires the necessary materials. Saddam probably possesses such weapons, so it could be simply a question of time or circumstance before he uses them.

Unfortunately, U.S. soldiers might be the first to inadvertently verify the existence of Saddam's smallpox stocks. The Pentagon is so concerned that soldiers might be exposed to the virus that it has already prepared a vaccination plan, which awaits the official go-ahead from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Sources familiar with the planned inoculations which could be initiated as early as this month say that they would be done in tiers. The first to receive the shots would be medical specialists and other first-responders who would also be called on to assist in any sort of a domestic smallpox incident. From there, the vaccine would be given to probable combat deployees. Eventually, up to 500,000 troops could be inoculated.

The possibility that children could be targeted instead of solders has led Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to support a proposed study of the smallpox vaccine in toddlers and preschoolers. Perhaps the only thing more frightening than going forward with the study are the consequences of not doing so. Dr. Fauci was exactly right to point out: "If we had an attack and we had to use the vaccine in children, you would see a lot of eyebrow-raising if we didn't know the effects."

Not everyone agrees. An opponent of the plan, Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, recently told the New York Times that "Smallpox doesn't exist in this world, so the benefits are solely theoretical."

Unfortunately, those benefits will almost certainly be real, as the nonexistence of smallpox appears to be only a perilous illusion. Thankfully, many within the administration appear to be ignoring that siren song. They should. The sooner the administration allows the public to voluntarily partake of the smallpox vaccine, the safer Americans children, civilians and soldiers alike will be.

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