WHO: Investigating reported smallpox outbreak in eastern Uganda (Update)

March 25th, 2010 - 5:10 pm ICT by BNO News  

GENEVA (BNO NEWS) — The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday said it is investigating four suspected cases of smallpox in eastern Uganda, but the credibility of the report is uncertain. Smallpox is a highly infectious disease which was last seen in 1978.

“We have reports of cases of smallpox in eastern Uganda,” said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the WHO. He said the information comes from local media reports in Uganda, and said the organization is currently following up to verify. Hartl said it was also awaiting information from the Uganda Ministry of Health. The reported outbreak is in the Bududa district.

Hartl said the last confirmed cases of smallpox were in 1978, which were caused by a laboratory accident in Birmingham, England. That infection killed one person and infected some others. The last natural case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977, and was officially declared eradicated in 1979. Since then, Hartl said, the organization has seen a small number of false suspected cases.

Smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 500 million people in the 20th century, and many others before then. Among those killed were Queen Mary II of England, Emperor Joseph I of Austria, and others. The WHO says the global death toll for 1967 alone was about two million.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on its website that there are concerns that smallpox could be used for bioterrorism. “Because smallpox was wiped out many years ago, a case of smallpox today would be the result of an intentional act,” the CDC said. “A single confirmed case of smallpox would be considered an emergency.”

The CDC further said that smallpox is still kept in two approved labs in the United States and Russia. “However, credible concern exists that the virus was made into a weapon by some countries and that terrorists may have obtained it,” the center said. It added to say that it considers the disease to be a great potential threat to public health.

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