ATLANTA - Experts don't believe six vials of smallpox viruses discovered in a Maryland lab pose much of a threat, even if the vials were breached.
Government workers found the box of vials inside a refrigerated closet at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, last week.
They dated back to the
1950s and, according to officials, were not breached. The vials were boxed up and taken to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in DeKalb County.
Experts there used DNA testing to confirm the vials contained smallpox, but they were not able to determine if the viruses were still alive.
Smallpox has been around humanity for thousands of years and, with a 30
percent mortality rate, was responsible for millions of deaths before the advent of vaccines.
It caused pustules to form on the skin and resulted in body-wide inflammation. With a worldwide effort to destroy smallpox in the 20th
century, doctors eradicated the virus in 1980.
"It is not a highly contagious disease," said Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness Medical Director Dr. Matthew McKenna.
McKenna said smallpox is about as contagious as a cold and responds well to vaccines. He said even if there had been an accidental release, it's really nothing modern medicine can't handle.
"If you vaccinate someone who's been exposed, you can prevent them from getting the disease," said McKenna. "So in terms of our ability to respond to something like this, we know we can do that. This is a disease that is amenable to that sort of intervention. It's one of the reasons it was eradicated."
Dr. Rob Dretler is the former chief of staff at DeKalb Medical Center and an expert on infectious diseases. He said the World Health Organization designated two places to contain the remaining samples of smallpox, one in Russia, the other at the CDC.
He also said the ease of treatment is one of the reasons the illness was eradicated so quickly.
"It has been eradicated because it was recognized that it was not that contagious, and therefore they figured out how to eliminate it," said Dretler. "A release in the air outside is not going to do anything. You would really have to take it and pour it on yourself and have much more direct contact."
The CDC said it should take about two weeks to determine if the viruses in the vials are still alive. If so, it said the samples would be destroyed.