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When I was a kid growing up on StatNisland in the '40s and '50s they had vaccination programs at PS 29 and the other schools which left a mark on your arm. The needle always seemed to go into your upper left arm and it left two kinds of marks. One was an indentation, after a series of such vaccinations, and the other was an upraised scar-like souvenir. That was the smallpox vaccination. Everybody seemed to have these scars on their arms. The cleverer ones had their vaccinations above the bathing suit line. I don't see these things any more, and I wonder why.

What calls this to mind is that I read an article in the N.Y.er Mag (July 12, 1999) called "The Demon in the Freezer" by Richard Preston, and I think one of our regulars here mentioned it was coming.

The thrust of the article is that smallpox, which when I was a kid was a deadly threat for kids, along with poliomyelitis and other demons that could kill you and probably would if you went to the pool, Tompkinsville (Lyons) Pool, at the wrong time and caught a germ, or if you hadn't got your vaccinations, has all but been eradicated, except that we may be bringing it back, courtesy of various governments, in the name of "national security," the ultimate shibboleth.

Polio scares occurred every summer. I had an uncle with a withered leg, who'd caught polio as a kid in the '20s. The newspapers referred to polio outbreaks and showed pictures of kids in iron-lungs, another thing I haven't seen a picture of in a long time.

When I was a kid, smallpox killed hundreds of thousands of people a year. Gradually medical researchers figured out how to vaccinate and isolate against the virus wherever there was an outbreak. Ultimately they eliminated it except for a case in Bangladesh in around 1975 and an outbreak in Yugoslavia which killed many people, also in the '70s. By jumping right on it, medical teams were able to innoculate so much of the Yugoslavian population (by forced injections under Marshall Tito) that the outbreak was stopped.

The vaccine used to make people immune from smallpox comes from people who had the disease. A small amount of the virus is used to scratch the arm, causing a pustule (that lumpy thing on your arm that stays there for a long time). Your body's immune system rallies to smother the invader, and after that, the next time a smallpox virus tries to attack your body, your immune system knows what to do, and kills it.

It's now been a quarter century since the last reported case of smallpox. The disease has been eliminated, as far as we can tell.

EXCEPT! Now that no one gets vaccinated against smallpox any more (the vaccination hurt, and it hasn't been needed if the disease has disappeared), smallpox is no longer a disease.

It's a weapon.

If the U.S., say, has gone without vaccination for a quarter century, our immunity is gone. We're as susceptible to smallpox now as the Indians of the Americas were to the Spaniards and English and French colonizers whose diseases decimated the native populations.

So what would be a good weapon to use against us?

Smallpox virus, of course.

Who thinks of this?

People like our friends, the former evil empire, the Soviets. And other nice people, such as Saddam Hussein.

What do we do about it?

We keep a stockpile of the disease, and the vaccines to prevent it, in a refrigerator someplace where there are lots of army uniforms around.

Suppose we needed it to go around to immunize 300 million people. Is there enuf to go around?

Are you kidding? There isn't even enuf to go around to immunize the military.

Is the threat real? The author points to a Russian missile launch with a goofy trajectory because the missile seemed to be carrying a refrigerator, of all things.

Why would you launch a refrigerator? some clever one asked.

Smallpox was the answer; you don't want to kill the viruses before you land them on your victims so that people can go around coughing and sneezing on one another to spread it around to everyone who goes to the pool in the summer.

The victims are us, in this case. Because we seem to have become vulnerable.

At any rate, that's the point of the article, as I understood it.

Just thought you'd like to know what's going on, it appears.

Somehow I'd feel better believing we're not on the delivery end of such a weapon. Poison gas seems preferable, as it works one-time, whereas smallpox just keeps on going.

-rs



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