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Rumsfeld reviews Pentagon smallpox shots plan

Emergency 'first responders' would get initial inoculations

From Barbara Starr

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with the National Security Council on Thursday.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with the National Security Council on Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the National Security Council met Thursday to review a Pentagon plan to begin inoculating some 500,000 military troops against smallpox.

President Bush is to make a final decision, but the Thursday presentation was seen as a key step in the process.

The Pentagon is pressing for an inoculation plan in light of growing evidence that Iraq has stockpiles of the smallpox virus. The first troops likely to receive the vaccine are those who would provide emergency "first responder" assistance or medical treatment if there was an attack in the United States.

Troops deploying to high-threat areas such as the Persian Gulf would also get the vaccine as quickly as it is available. Civilian health care workers across the United States would also be among those in a first wave of inoculations.

The strategy is to provide a layer of protection against any smallpox attack in the United States or targeting U.S. troops abroad.

The concern has grown with a recent intelligence assessment concluding that there are unauthorized samples of the virus held by Iraq, North Korea, Russia and France. (Full story)

One issue in deciding on a civilian and military inoculation plan is how to avoid public panic.

Recently the ANSER Institue for Homeland Security staged a war game called "Dark Winter," assessing what would happen if there was a smallpox outbreak in the United States. The results showed that within 20 days of a single case in the U.S., the disease would have spread to nearly 20,000 people across 25 states and that as many as 1,000 people would have died.

Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979 by the World Health Organization after the last reported case in 1978.

The last case reported in the US was in 1949.

But the disease killed 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century according to the Pentagon.

Vaccinations against smallpox ended in the United States in 1972. While people who received the vaccine may still have some residual benefit from it, Pentagon officials point out that most military personnel are younger than 30 and never received inoculation.

The Department of Health and Human Services has earmarked one million doses of the smallpox vaccine for military use.

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