UN health agency releases updated guidance on small pox vaccinations

UN health agency releases updated guidance on small pox vaccinations

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Issuing new guidelines on smallpox vaccines today, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said people should not be inoculated in the absence of a danger of contracting the disease.

In a statement released in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland pointed out that existing vaccines, while effective, could carry adverse side effects. "The risk of adverse events is sufficiently high that mass vaccination is not warranted if there is no or little real risk of exposure," she said.

The new guidelines come out against vaccinating entire populations. "The reason for not recommending such mass vaccination is that there is a risk of severe reactions to the vaccine, including death, and the fact that vaccination can prevent smallpox even after exposure to the virus," Dr. Brundtland explained.

The WHO Director-General acknowledged that increasing attention was being given to the extent and quality of existing vaccine stocks, and to the possible need both to stimulate vaccine production and increase stocks of vaccine for use in the event of an outbreak.

In addition to disseminating the new guidelines, as well as fact sheets and training materials on the disease, the agency has re-established a team of smallpox experts who are available to assist countries in the investigation and response to outbreaks.

Dr. Brundtland said that if smallpox were to be found anywhere, it would be a global crisis. "I want to emphasize that should an outbreak of smallpox be detected in any country, this should be considered an international emergency."

Highly contagious and often deadly, smallpox existed for at least 3,000 years and was one of the world's most feared diseases before being eradicated by a collaborative global vaccination programme led by WHO. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977.