World-renowned Smallpox Researcher Speaks at UR

Head of World Health Organization's Eradication Unit to Discuss Bioterrorism

September 28, 1999

Packed away in only two known laboratories on the planet are vials of a virus that, if let loose into society, could kill hundreds of thousands in the course of a few months. Variola - or smallpox - was officially eradicated in 1980, but the potential impact the existing virus could have on humanity is sparking controversy 20 years later.

Donald A. Henderson, M.D., M.P.H., the University of Rochester alumnus who led the World Health Organization's global campaign that successfully eradicated smallpox, will address the issue of bioterrorism as it relates to the virus during the Eastman Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Rochester Medical Center on Thursday.

Although the deadly disease is known to be secured in two official locations - the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and a government facility in Russia - there is believed to be small amounts of the virus unaccounted for in clandestine biowarfare factories, including sites in Russia that are off limits to the public. If released into the world's population, it could cause a catastrophic epidemic affecting millions around the globe.

Smallpox has killed more people over the ages than any other infectious disease. The first outbreaks were recorded in Africa about 10,000 B.C. Experts claim that in the 20th century alone it claimed up to a billion lives, more than all wars and epidemics combined.

British physician Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine in 1796 that protected against the virus, providing the key to controlling outbreaks and eventually eliminating smallpox cases. The United States ended its requirement for routine vaccinations in 1972 as a result of the successful immunization plan implemented by Henderson's team, and the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980, three years after the last reported case in 1977 in Somalia.

If the virus made its way back into the general population today, it would find that most of the world's inhabitants have never been vaccinated or the vaccinations received decades ago are ineffective. Because of the implications, some experts believe existing stores of the virus should be protected so that, in the event that smallpox resurfaces, vaccines can be created from the stores. Others, such as Henderson, are calling for known virus stores to be destroyed in an effort to make the world a safer place.

Henderson, who received his medical degree in 1954 from the University of Rochester, currently is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Biodefense Studies and a Johns Hopkins University Distinguished Service Professor. He served from 1991-93 under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton as associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and later was named deputy assistant secretary and senior science advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The lecture will be held at 4 p.m. in the Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building. Members of the media can park in the Elmwood Avenue lot located at the building's entrance, just west of the Strong Memorial Hospital main entrance.

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