The World Health Organization (WHO), represented by health officials from 193 countries, will meet in Geneva, Switzerland this week for its 64th annual World Health Assembly. There are many topics for discussion and debate. One of the key questions will be whether to destroy the world’s last known stockpiles of the variola virus. They are located at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo. The variola virus causes the deadly and infamous human disease known as smallpox. The variola virus is one of the most destructive human viruses and in the 20th century alone it has killed over 300 million people. The variola virus is known to have killed 30% of all people which had been infected by it. If not killed by the variola virus, the victims were often left severely disfigured or blind. Small pox is thought to have emerged as a human disease as long ago as 10,000 BC. The mummified body of Pharaoh Rameses V of Egypt has physical evidence of infection with the small pox virus. The disease is responsible for killing 400,000 Europeans per year during the 18th century. Small pox was brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonists to the island of Hispaniola, and played a key role in the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner was the first to show that infection by cowpox would protect humans from smallpox. Following this discovery, several attempts to eradicate smallpox on a regional level were attempted without success. The WHO launched a worldwide campaign to eradicate the variola virus by vaccination in 1967. The last recorded case occurred in Somalia in 1977. In 1980, the WHO declared that the world was free of the variola virus and that the disease was eradicated from the earth. The WHO and its member countries had agreed to destroy the last remaining stockpiles by 1993, but this has been postponed on several occasions in the past. Individuals who are advocating the destruction of the world’s last known stockpiles claim that they are the only remaining risk for future outbreaks. Opponents to destruction claim that the stockpiles are needed for further medical research and better vaccine development. Both Russia and the United States agree that the destruction of the stockpiles is not the best course of action. The United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recently wrote an opinion editorial that was published in the New York Times stating why the world was not ready for the destruction of the last stockpiles of variola virus. The WHO’s World Health Assembly is expected to meet on Wednesday or Thursday to discuss this issue. A possible compromise would be to dramatically reduce the current stockpiles of the variola virus if they are not completely destroyed.
Photo Credit: CDC/James Hicks