Smallpox an unlikely threat, syas Horstmann lecturer

John Curtis

When smallpox reached the New World, it quickly decimated the indigenous population, said John M. Neff, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the Children’s Hospital in Seattle. A similar, devastating outbreak is unlikely today, Neff told an audience in April for the Dorothy Horstmann Lecture at pediatric grand rounds.

With the disease eradicated since the 1970s, Neff said, the threat would come from misuse of stores of smallpox under guard in Russia and the United States or from rogue countries that might have obtained the virus. The possibility that these nations or groups have the virus is circumstantial, said Neff, who studied smallpox for the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1960s and ’70s. Furthermore, he said, its use as a bioterrorist agent would backfire. “It won’t be contained in any one country.” Neff expressed a greater concern over the risks of vaccination.

Neff called for destroying all remaining samples of the virus. “I don’t think the gains of keeping it around outweigh the gains of getting rid of it, and to destroy it makes a very positive statement to the rest of the world,” he said.