Scourge: The Once And Future Threat of Smallpox

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9780756781903: Scourge: The Once And Future Threat of Smallpox

Smallpox, the only infectious disease to have been eradicated, was one of the most terrifying of human scourges. It covered the skin with hideous, painful boils, killed a third of its victims, & left the survivors disfigured for life. Here is the story of this deadly disease, the heroic efforts to eradicate it, & the looming dangers it still poses today. The smallpox virus afflicted rich & poor, royalty & commoners, & repeatedly altered the course of human history, as when the Spanish conquistadors brought it to the New World where it decimated the indigenous pop s. In 1796 Edward Jenner developed a vaccine against smallpox, which caused it to eventually disappear in industrialized countries. But lab. stocks of the virus still exist, & clandestine stocks pose a mil. threat.

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About the Author:

Jonathan B. Tucker is an expert on biological and chemical weapons in the Washington, D.C., office of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

From The New England Journal of Medicine:

Without the smallpox virus, the world today would be exceedingly different. Although issues surrounding smallpox have been the subject of speculative fiction, Scourge is a superb and engaging factual treatise -- both historical and scientific -- dealing with the impact of this highly contagious and often lethal infection from ancient times to the present. Beginning with the opening sentence, in which smallpox is denoted as "the world's most dangerous prisoner," the author relates a fascinating tale in which it is not armies and conquest that repeatedly change the course of civilization, but the variola poxvirus, manifested as two forms of disease: variola major and variola minor. Although the historical vignettes are interesting, no attempt is made to provide an in-depth analysis of many events that are themselves the subject of entire books. Instead, some of the initial purported forays into the field of biologic weapons involving smallpox are highlighted. However, it is clear that these anecdotes are a prologue to an unexpected series of much more serious recent events. Thus, the author sets the stage for the real story -- that of three centuries of valiant attempts by the global medical community to eradicate this terrible scourge, albeit without complete success. The heroes of the story are physicians who work tirelessly to rid the human population of this disease, often against strong political countercurrents and under dangerous circumstances. From the discovery of vaccine prophylaxis by Edward Jenner to Donald A. Hendrickson's tireless efforts to see the disease abolished, a massive assault on this pathogen was launched. This humanistic work, often conducted under extreme conditions in the field by a global health care team involving as many as 150,000 persons, culminated in the World Health Organization's announcement in 1980 that smallpox disease had been wiped out -- a singular, historic event. Just a little over a decade previously, it had been estimated that 10 to 15 million people in 43 countries had smallpox, a statistic of which even recent medical school graduates may be unaware. Furthermore, eradication of smallpox transpired in the midst of the Cold War, so it is perhaps even more surprising that Soviet and U.S. teams found common ground in developing strategies to contain outbreaks of disease and jointly supply vaccine. Intriguingly, the real villain, the virus itself, had not been eradicated, since it was stockpiled at that time in any number of secure and not-so-secure facilities. The descriptions of the biologic-warfare programs conducted by one major world power -- and perhaps more than one -- are both terrifying and appalling. In the latter portion of the book, the author reconstructs the way in which biologic-warfare agents based on the variola virus were developed behind the Iron Curtain, apparently on the mistaken assumption that the United States was doing the same as part of a biologic-arms race occurring in parallel with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The scientific and political debate over whether the remaining stocks of virus should be destroyed makes interesting reading, particularly in relation to the disparate views of basic-science researchers, World Health Organization physicians, politicians, and military personnel. The work of judging the actions of the principals in what seem to be morally ambiguous events is left in large part to the reader. Written before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the sporadic cases of anthrax infection that were subsequently identified, the cautionary note in the final chapters of the book concerning the potential use of smallpox as a biologic weapon looms even larger on today's world stage. In summary, Scourge is a well-written, informative history of the eradication of smallpox disease. The author's authoritative command of the intrigue surrounding the "stay of execution" of the virus itself and its potential use as an agent for biologic warfare makes the latter portion of the book read much like a modern spy thriller, one that is difficult to put aside as recent events continue to unfold. David L. Dunn, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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Jonathan B. Tucker
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