Select forces to receive smallpox vaccination

3 Jan 2002 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

Thirty percent of those who contract it die.  There is no cure.  In 1980, it was declared eradicated.  But with the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, the military will be vaccinating service members against it once more.

While the threat of smallpox being used as a biological weapon is unknown, the consequences of such an attack could be great.

"This is the number-one disease killer of all time," said Army Brig. Gen. George W. Weightman, 3rd Medical Command commanding general.  "If there is one case of smallpox, it's a global medical emergency."

The disease starts off with a high fever, head and body aches, and sometimes vomiting.  A rash develops into blisters that cover the body, which can cause permanent scars.  There is a 30 percent fatality rate among those who contract the disease, and some survivors become blind.  Smallpox can be contracted either through face-to-face contact with a sufferer of the disease, or through contact with objects that have been in contact with that sufferer.

The military's smallpox vaccination program was revived Dec. 2, after President George W. Bush ordered select forces to begin receiving the vaccine.

"This vaccine is not new, but it's been offline for 12 years," said Navy Capt. Joel A. Lees, I Marine Expeditionary Force surgeon.  "Since September of 2001, an understanding that bioweapons could be employed changed the risk assessment, and the vaccine is being used in response."

Regional commanders, including those from the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), received a brief on the Department of Defense smallpox vaccination program Jan. 3 at Camp Doha, Kuwait.

Afterward, select individuals received the vaccination as part of a demonstration of the procedures involved.  Key I MEF (FWD) Marines were vaccinated, including Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, I MEF commanding general, and Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, 1st Marine Division commanding general.

Medical personnel scheduled to issue the vaccine are being trained on its proper application.

"The vaccine is administered, not in an injection, but with delivery into the skin by pricking it with a special needle," said Lees.  "No other vaccine is administered this way, but this method has proven to be effective due to the interaction of this virus in the skin."

The vaccination site will develop into a red, itchy bump, and then into a blister, which then scabs over.  After the scab falls off, it leaves a small scar.  Some people also experience fever, sore arm, headache, body ache, and fatigue.

Under the Defense Department policy, emergency response and medical personnel have been among the first to receive the vaccination.

"It doesn't hurt at all," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis Hall, 21, from Mammoth Spring, Ark.  "It's less painful than a tattoo."

Smallpox is caused by the variolla virus.  The vaccine is made from a similar virus, called vaccinola.  Most people develop protection from smallpox within 10 days of receiving the vaccination.

"It's not the smallpox virus," said Lees.  "It's a different virus that fortunately affords us terrific protection from smallpox."

Designated service members who are essential to the accomplishment of the U.S. Central Command's mission will begin receiving the vaccine as soon as it is in place and troop education has been accomplished.  However, some people will be exempted from the vaccination program due to health risks.  Those personnel will still be deployable.

"We won't give it to pregnant women," said Lees, "or people with immune deficiencies, or people with certain skin conditions that increase their risk from the vaccine."